by Brenda Austin-Smith
More CAUT associations are currently on strike, or preparing for job action, than we have seen in many years. Why is the heat so high at the bargaining table right now? Why are so many associations on the picket line already or on their way there? Look no further than central administrations and provincial governments, who continue to be the most effective tool of member engagement for academic associations. That may not be their intention, but it’s hard to argue with results that stretch from the prairies to the sea.
The fight-back spirit among CAUT members began to rise two years ago as the pandemic forced all of us into emergency remote work. We did this because we had no choice. It was the only way to continue our research, teaching, and service in the face of a lifethreatening virus. We balanced laptops on piles of books on kitchen counters, rigged up the best lighting we could, and carried on. Many CAUT members did all this even though supports from the employer were minimal or non-existent, and when a growing number of academics were precarious workers. About one-third of those who teach at Canadian postsecondary education institutions are on short-term contracts with terrible pay and few benefits.
Our colleges and universities were under a range of threats well before COVID. Constant cuts by governments have punched a hole in budgets that finance the core mission of our institutions. This has had knock-on effects as more of our colleagues face increased workloads with no respite and insufficient support. About 10 per cent of precarious academics in Canada saw their jobs disappear completely — their students loaded instead into the (virtual) classrooms of their colleagues. And it’s important to remember that racialized academics, women academics, Indigenous academics, and academics with disabilities, are more likely to be concentrated in the ranks of the precarious than in full-time tenure-track jobs. Given the touting of equity, diversity and inclusion progress by our administrations, the lack of attention to the under-representation of these colleagues in tenure-track positions is infuriating.
And in the thick of the COVID crisis, central administrations seized on the emergency to grab unilateral power in academic decision making. Senates were bypassed or side-stepped in the name of expediency. Central administrations promised that this was temporary, that our work was deeply appreciated and that our extraordinary effort to keep our institutions working would be remembered. Until it wasn’t. The shunting aside of collegial governance by administrations bent on commercialization and top-down control was cause for outrage.
Associations had to argue and even grieve, to restore collegial decision making to its rightful place. Those struggles have surfaced at the bargaining table and on the picket line. My association, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, stayed out on strike for five weeks—in part because the administration claimed for itself the right to dictate the mode of instruction —even though that is an academic matter that rightly falls to Senate. In the face of this persistent over-reach, and the failure of our administrations to protect institutions from the predations of provincial governments, it isn’t surprising that CAUT members have taken action.
The wave of militancy and willingness to withdraw our labour doesn’t come out of nowhere. It isn’t a fit of pique. Nor is it only about salary and benefits — though for those of us watching Manitoba government lawyers admit in court last month to violating our Constitutional rights, the absence of free and fair bargaining is galling. Yes, we all deserve fair salaries and benefits. But when I read the communications from CAUT associations to their members about the state of bargaining on our campuses, one word occurs more than any other: respect.
Academic workers across the country deserve respect. In the thick of the pandemic, the reliance of our institutions on our labour was clearer than it has ever been. We are the ones who rose to the challenge two years ago. I don’t know about you, but I’ve yet to meet a student who turned to a university president for support when they were sick, anxious, and unable to cope. And after all that, we’re told that our willingness to do ever more for students is a weakness — in effect, that we’ve been naïve to assume that those who profess to lead our institutions actually care about us and our students.
Real leaders inspire rather than command. They speak from a place of integrity and values—values that have nothing at all to do with profit, metrics, and wringing more work hours out of the insecurely employed. The anger sweeping the post-secondary landscape this year is a revolt against disrespect, and the result of our realization that no one will stand up for the values of collegial governance, academic freedom, and workplace rights, but us.