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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2008

CAUT President: The Best Job in the World

By Greg Allain
Over the last two years, I’ve often been asked: “How do you like being president of CAUT?” and, “It must be a lot of work?” And I always replied that of course it’s a lot of work, it’s a full-time job, but I absolutely love it! In fact, I think it’s the best job in the world. Let me explain.

As a sociologist, one of my areas of interest is work — how it’s evolved, how it’s organized and by whom and in whose interest. One of the classes I teach is “Industrial and Post-Industrial Societies,” where I look at the factors affecting the organization of work and how corporations shift jobs around in our globalized economy, leaving battered communities and regions in their wake. I also teach the “Sociology of Trade Unions,” showing how unions have a strong history of working to stop corporations’ attacks against workers and build bargaining power, and leading the collective resistance to employers’ unvarying quest for control of the workplace and the maximum increase in profit possible.

In addition, as a union activist, I’ve been involved in my local academic staff association at the University of Moncton for a number of years, including four years as president. I led our first strike in March 2000, where we won significant gains for faculty and librarians, including serious inroads into achieving salary parity with our English-speaking colleagues in New Brunswick. Just as important, during those five weeks when we were out on the picket lines, our 300 members got to know each other and learned much about the power of solidarity.

So it was a great privilege, and a great joy, to be elected to the CAUT executive in April 2000, where I successively served as a member-at-large, treasurer and vice-president, before being elected president in 2006. And it’s not the position that’s important: it’s having the opportunity to work for a progressive organization that has become not only the leading voice of university and college academic staff across Canada, but also a growing and engaged organization that strives to make a difference in the complex and rapidly changing landscape of Canadian post-secondary education. Here are just a few examples.

One of the major threats to the quality of post-secondary education is government underfunding. Since the mid-1980s, the great deficiency in our universities and colleges is a paucity of core funding. Just to go back to the funding levels of 1994-1995, allowing for inflation and population growth, would require an immediate injection of approximately $4 billion into the post-secondary education sector.

The chronic underfunding has resulted in university and college administrators scrambling to find new sources of revenue: skyrocketing tuition fees, which are increasing debt loads for students and curtailing open access; the ever-heightened call to commercialize research and privatize higher learning institutions, and the growing casualization of academic work, as employers increasingly search for “flexibility” and cheap labour.

These are formidable trends to be up against, but CAUT has been very proactive in its efforts on these fronts. Our annual Parliament Hill day continues to be at the forefront of our lobbying efforts to try and convince the federal government of the crucial importance of increased and reliable core funding for our institutions. Our Post-secondary Education Act has served as a very useful pedagogical device in illustrating the type of legal framework that could achieve adequate funding. Among other means CAUT uses to further that end is its annual brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, joint federal lobbying work with colleagues in Quebec’s Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, writing to MPs and presenting at national education conferences.

While the feds have channeled more money into research in recent years, the extra funds usually come with strings attached. Research funding plans often call for co-funding from private or other sources and they distort academic and collegial priorities by heavily favouring certain fields — health and natural sciences over social sciences and humanities, for instance. In the last two federal budget, the increases allocated to the three granting councils were targeted to specific priority areas.

The fight for better public funding of higher education is going to be a long-term one. How legislators fail to understand that universal demand for post-secondary education is growing and the importance of R&D for our economy is beyond me. I’d sometimes be tempted to yell: “Hey! It’s not a cost, it’s an investment!”

One area where CAUT has achieved spectacular success is in organizing contract academic staff. In 2000, a decision was made to organize all unorganized contract academics across Canada. An organizer was hired, a contract academic staff committee of the executive was created and, in the space of eight short years, we can safely say: mission accomplished. More than 10,000 contract academics are now unionized within faculty associations, either in the same bargaining unit or in a separate one. That is a considerable achievement!

The next challenge, of course, is to help them bargain favourable collective agreements. We have helped our local associations in negotiating significant gains in part-timers’ working conditions and pay and our next objective is to bargain the pro-rata model, which defines and compensates part-time work as a percentage of full-time work.

CAUT has helped many associations achieve victories in collective bargaining, in spite of the fact that employer aggression is becoming a more prevalent part of bargaining. In fact, our university and college employers now often fail to take bargaining demands seriously until a strike vote has been held, or sometimes not before association members go out on strike.

In recent times, I’ve walked the picket lines with striking colleagues at the University of Prince Edward Island, Bishop’s, Acadia and St. Thomas. The solidarity, determination, organization and good cheer our colleagues displayed on the picket lines and at local rallies was outstanding. An ominous note, however, was the preemptive lockout over the Christmas holidays of academic staff at St. Thomas University, an institution that prides itself on its Catholic image. Shame on you, STU governors and administrators! We can only hope this unprecedented move by a university administration proves to be an anomaly.

I could speak of many other areas where CAUT has been at the vanguard, such as in the fight to defend academic freedom. We usually only hear about the most serious cases, where a committee of inquiry is set up to find out what has happened, but there are many others. Constant vigilance is of the utmost importance, as well as a vigorous defense of academic freedom, whenever and wherever it is under attack!

In recent years, CAUT has established itself as a serious player on the international scene. With modest means, we have been able to exert considerable influence within Education International, a global federation with more than 30 million members from 171 countries. I was particularly proud of presenting CAUT’s first motion at EI’s 5th World Congress in Berlin last July — a broad and strong resolution championing the rights of contract academics that was approved unanimously by the meeting.

I was also pleased to make presentations on the Canadian situation at the 6th EI Higher Education Conference in Malaga in October and at a national teachers’ unions conference in Washington in March. In addition, CAUT was instrumental in setting up the North American EI Higher Education Caucus, where we meet twice yearly with our Quebec and American colleagues to exchange information and devise joint action plans to further the work of EI on issues such as opposing OECD initiatives on higher education and monitoring GATS talks for market opening commitments, which could eventually include the higher education sector.

Yes, there are a lot of meetings, workshops and conferences to attend when you’re CAUT president. I’ve always relished the opportunity to welcome people to CAUT events and to participate in other meetings, whether it is the CAUT Defence Fund meeting, provincial meetings, the western regional, or the annual meetings of member associations celebrating a special anniversary or occasion. All of these were valuable and rewarding and my favourite part of traveling was the opportunity to meet up with so many wonderful colleagues from all over Canada.

This is my last column as CAUT president. I have really enjoyed writing these monthly pieces. I tried to focus on topics that matter to all of us such as working conditions (health and safety, occupational stress and bullying) and the work associations do (bargaining, grievances and communications) and the challenges they face, particularly association leadership renewal. I’m particularly proud of the four-part series “What a Difference 12 Years Make: CAUT on the Move,” in which I document, in the absence of an official history of the organization, the tremendous growth in CAUT involvements over the last few years.

CAUT is a great organization to serve, and I want to thank all my fellow executive committee members for their hard work and commitment. I also want to warmly thank our professional and dedicated staff, and in particular our very effective and hard-working executive director, James Turk, for leading the way and getting everything done. It’s been a privilege to work closely with him and all other members of staff. These have been two of the most rewarding years of my life! Long live CAUT!