By Peter McInnis
The education profession generally, and post-secondary divisions in particular, may not be known as hotbeds of militant industrial unrest, but events of the last months challenge notions of quiescence. In Britain, the University and College Union has staged walkouts over poor wages and conditions, and 48,000 academic workers in the University of California system have launched the largest ever strike in this sector.
Over the last year, CAUT members went on strike to achieve fair and equitable settlements. We may need to resort to such actions again in the coming months, when facing intransigent administrators and government interference.
The right to support collective bargaining through the use of strikes raises numerous questions. How a union reaches the position of authorizing a strike, and what constitutes a legal strike, have been highlighted across Canada and internationally. The answer is both simple and complex.
Simple, in that withholding labour to achieve an acceptable negotiated contract is one of the most democratic actions unions may undertake. Prior to formal negotiations, unions poll their membership on the issues they wish brought forward. Actual bargaining is undertaken by a smaller group of colleagues representing the broader collective. Hence the term collective bargaining.
Expectations for constructive interchange between a union and administration may not unfold as expected, and an impasse is declared. A strike vote may be undertaken at any point, but the question is always direct: do the members of a certified bargaining unit support a cessation of their professional activities to bolster their team’s position at the negotiating table?
Complex, with variations for differing provincial laws, a successful strike vote is a high bar to clear. The union must usually achieve not only a majority of those casting votes, but also a majority of the entire membership, an impressive level of engagement not expected for political elections. Provinces may also differ on the timeline required to reach a legal strike.
A government appointed conciliator will try and forge a late settlement, but failing this, there may be a “no board” report to the minister of labour indicating a stalemate. This is followed by a mandatory “cooling off” period, after which a strike/lockout may be declared.
In Canada, legal strikes are rarely spontaneous events instigated by a small cadre of exuberant activists, but rather a deliberative action of the entire collective. Some have described this multi-stage process as ponderous and bound by “industrial legality,” yet it’s the system we’ve inherited to protest workplace inequalities and strive for progressive reform.
Having reached the point of a strike, why commence a workplace stoppage, if, as critics claim, it’s disruptive? The intention is that very disruption, for without this extraordinary leverage many university/college administrators will not agree to most union proposals. Without the potential of strikes, the workplace is less democratic and less collegial.
Sometimes constructive progress is born of strife, and surprisingly, many picket line experiences are positive as faculty/staff learn of each other’s research, teaching, and a shared commitment to quality education. Students also have an opportunity to engage in vital debates on the educational mission as they represent a crucial element of the campus community.
While strikes are comparatively rare, there have been efforts to stifle even the potential for job action. During the fractious negotiations for primary school educational support workers, the government of Ontario attempted to impose a multi-year contract and shield this unilateral action with the audacious application of the notwithstanding clause to exempt bad faith bargaining from legal challenges under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If implemented, this pre-emptive use of S.33 of the Charter would have not only quashed the constitutional rights of these workers, but also had the potential to render all collective bargaining rights effectively moot.
The collective protests of the labour movement were swift, the legislation was repealed, and the negotiations eventually concluded with a ratified agreement.
When post-secondary faculty/staff vote to certify a union to be their sole representative for the purpose of negotiating a collective agreement, and to support that legal agreement through grievance and other procedures of redress, they are also accepting that some instances may compel adversarial confrontation. For contemporary Canadians, the constitutional right to strike, however encumbered with multiple procedural tests and limitations, forms the keystone for all collective agreements, that in turn, buttress collegial governance and academic freedom.
Therefore, we should strike when necessary, and then, strike to win for the benefit of our profession and of our democracy.