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Executive director's corner / Canada: From laggard to leader in academic unionization

Executive director's corner / Canada: From laggard to leader in academic unionization

By David Robinson

Canada has one of the highest rates of unionization of academic staff in the world. But that wasn’t always the case. Academic unions emerged in other countries decades before any serious consideration was given to the idea here. How is it that we went from laggard to leader in academic staff unionization?

Canada’s first academic staff union didn’t emerge until 1970, decades after faculty unionization efforts started in other countries. In the U.K., the Association of University Lecturers was founded in 1917, with membership expanded to include all teaching staff two years later. The General Danish Masters’ Organisation was founded in 1918 to represent any worker holding an advanced university degree, including academics. In Australia, the Sydney Association of University Teachers, founded in 1943, was affiliated to the Labour Council of New South Wales.

Even in the U.S., faculty unions were being formed prior to the 1920s. Two years after it was founded, the American Federation of Teachers amended its constitutional rules in 1918 to permit the membership of higher education unions. The first AFT faculty local at Howard University was admitted the same year, followed by the University of Illinois faculty union in 1919.

Meanwhile, academic staff unionization in Canada was not on the radar. Faculty associations had formed throughout the early half of the 20th century, but they functioned informally. Issues arising between the administration and faculty were dealt with quietly and on an ad hoc basis. Salaries were agreed upon individually rather than collectively, and adversarial criticisms of the administration were avoided in favour of maintaining a friendly relationship with the president and board.

In effect, as Paul Axelrod described it, faculty associations functioned as “a minor adjunct of administrations themselves.”

It was not until the late 1940s that there was talk of creating a national professional body modelled on the non-union American Association of University Professors, and even this sparked some controversy. The University of Toronto’s Committee to Represent the Teaching Staff — a precursor to today’s faculty association — expressed opposition to the founding of CAUT in 1951 out of concern the new body might develop “trade union attitudes.”

By the late 1960s, the tide was beginning to turn. CAUT Council debated the merits of unionization in response to deteriorating working conditions, stagnating salaries, and threats to professional rights like academic freedom, tenure and collegial governance.

Economic factors drove much of the debate, but CAUT also embraced unionization as necessary to secure legal protections for academic freedom and tenure. Prior to unionization, alleged violations of academic freedom at a university or college were dealt with through an internal hearing process, but individual faculty had limited recourse to appeal to the courts or independent tribunals. Today, the legal foundation for academic freedom in Canada exists primarily in collective agreements that define, protect and enforce academic freedom.

While the first waves of unionization in Canada may have been largely reactive and pragmatic, certification delivered other tangible gains. It embedded academic freedom and tenure in legally binding contracts and helped to check the growth and concentration of the administration’s previously unilateral power.

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