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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2006

Collective Bargaining Key for Contract Staff

As contract academic staff in Canada’s universities and colleges we have been nurtured on the centrality of rational discourse. We earned our advanced degrees and certifications by mastering our fields and by demonstrating that we can contribute to their further development through dissemination of knowledge, service and research.

As we become involved in our academic staff associations, we typically bring with us teaching and research techniques developed over decades. As we enter collective bargaining, we consult with our members, hold discussions about our priorities, develop contract language and present our package to the employer.

But, despite the rhetoric about looming academic staff shortages, the employer wants concessions, such as an expansion of so-called “teaching only” positions, permission to convert permanent positions to contract positions and other measures that further impose the “have vs. have-not” model on academic staff. Our rational discourse more often than not is met by one word: “No.”

We face educational corporations that have openly become business-oriented and hardheaded about their own skewed interpretation of higher education as it has developed over the past 700 years.

Ironies abound. The University of British Columbia recently hired a U.S. Nobel laureate, at a cost of more than $400,000, a multimillion dollar grant commitment and a spousal appointment, all in the name of improving “science education.” Meanwhile, teaching-only contract staff working full-time at UBC and other institutions, earn only 10 to 15 per cent of this amount — if they’re lucky — in all fields, including the sciences. Imagine how we could improve science education if we put that money into the front lines!

The only way Canadian academic staff can protect what we have and improve the conditions of our most exploited colleagues is through collective bargaining. We’re talking about protecting our core values, such as academic freedom, job security and a living wage. We must recognize that collective bargaining is really about power and the consequent distribution of resources, not about rational discussion. Management has power and it doesn’t want to give it up. As academic staff, we need the power if our institutions are to fulfill their promise. It is in collective bargaining, and not in our senates, that we can achieve our goals.

The business-oriented model of these new educational corporations forces us to follow the model of industrial unions if we intend to protect what we have and build on it. This means building solidarity among our members, and it means saying “No” to any and all concessions, and backing it up with job action.

In the higher education sector we have some striking advantages of which we should make the most. First, societal elites increasingly recognize that the country cannot succeed in a knowledge economy without a vigorous higher-education system. Second, as hard as they try, administrators have not been able to use technology to run institutions without academic staff. Third, students pay good money and want to be taught by talented, highly-qualified teachers. Finally, we work in de facto public institutions, regardless of whatever the employer may think, and governments will and do intervene to protect their “investment” in the case of a protracted labour dispute.

No student in Canada has ever lost a term’s credit because of a job action. And there is much to be gained. We believe it’s time for our member associations to go on the offensive in pressing our just claims.
Article contributed by CAUT’s Contract Academic Staff Committee.