Big changes coming to academic faculty, graduate student and postdoctoral bargaining rights in Alberta

Posted on April 10, 2017, 12:55 am
7 mins

PHOTOS: Could we someday see scenes like this one at Boston University in 1979 at an Alberta University? The late Howard Zinn, author of the People’s History of the United States (banned in Arkansas), is visible, quite naturally, I suppose, near the front on the left. (Photo from the Boston Public Library.) Below: Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt and respected labour lawyer and mediator Andrew Sims. 

Significant charges are coming to the rights of academic staff at post-secondary institutions in Alberta, including tenured faculty, to bargain collectively.

Right-wing opposition politicians are likely to claim the changes are Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government doing favours for friends in the union movement. But if conservative politicians make this claim, they will be lying – there really is no other word for it, since they know the truth as well as the government does – and crossing their fingers that their supporters and Albertans who are sitting on the fence won’t know any better.

In fact – literally in fact, not merely a turn of phrase – the most significant change in faculty association collective bargaining, the right to strike that will likely come into force as soon as Bill 7 is passed and receives Royal Assent, is the direct result of a Supreme Court of Canada decision in January 2015.

“Today’s bill would bring about the transition, for post-secondary education, to the free collective bargaining called for by the Supreme Court,” said respected labour lawyer and mediator Andrew Sims, who led a consultation with education stakeholders last year, in the government’s announcement of the Act to Enhance Post-Secondary Academic Bargaining when it was introduced late last week.

“Our government is committed to complying with the Supreme Court of Canada decision that guaranteed Canadian workers the right to strike while maintaining essential public services,” said Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt in the same release. (Emphasis added.) “This legislation will ensure that labour relations at Alberta’s colleges and universities are consistent with the rest of Alberta’s public sector and with the post-secondary sector across Canada.”

Under legislation passed by various generations of the Progressive Conservative Dynasty, strikes by essentially all public employees were illegal – a pretty obvious human rights violation, although one popular with many voters.

Faculty Associations in Alberta came under the Post-Secondary Learning Act, legislation that additionally took away their freedom-of-association rights by not allowing them to pick the union they wanted to represent them in collective bargaining. They could bargain collectively if they wished, but only on their own as a single-institution faculty association – without the financial and technical support that is inherent in being part of a larger union.

Once Bill 7 is passed, faculty will come under the Alberta Labour Code – although with a caveat, that their faculty association’s right to represent them will be frozen for five years, after which according to the interpretation of ministry officials they will be able to seek representation by other, possibly more effective unions if they wish.

Needless to say, this is a highly significant change in an era when universities throughout Canada have controlled their labour costs by creating an unfair two-tier system of faculty in which a small number of tenured professors enjoy high pay and rich benefits and a large number of itinerant instructors do most of the work in precarious circumstances for low pay and few or no benefits.

The new legislation will impact faculty associations, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the government’s news release notes. Amending both the Post-secondary Learning Act and the Labour Relations Code to bring these workers – and I use that term advisedly – under the Code will:

  • Mean graduate students’ associations as well as academic staff associations have the right to strike
  • Create postdoctoral fellows’ associations and extend the right to strike to their members
  • Give post-secondary institutions the right to lock out their academic employees (let’s see how well that goes over with fee-paying students and their taxpaying parents!)
  • Require post-secondary institutions to negotiate essential services agreements with their academic employees’ bargaining organizations
  • End the use of compulsory arbitration in which contracts and costs are determined by an arbitrator

It’s worth asking if over time this approach, which is likely to be adopted in other provinces for the same reasons, could lead to the creation of an Academic Faculty Union of Canada? It seems to me such a project would be worth the effort for the resulting acronym alone!

Levity aside, I suppose a government could futz around and pretend the Supreme Court didn’t have all working people in mind when it ruled that all working people have the right to bargain collectively, including the right to strike, but they would be wasting their breath and taxpayers’ money.

Short of using the Notwithstanding Clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – a politically risky strategy, as intended by the drafters of Canada’s 1982 Constitution – such an effort would be doomed to failure in the courts. Likewise, it is said here, trying to restrict the freedom-of-association right of faculty members to be represented by whatever union they choose would likely suffer the same fate.

This is why any politician who says she or he would repeal every single law passed by a previous government is either a liar or a fool, whether or not the air-conditioning in the Legislature happened to be operating at the time.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

28 Comments to: Big changes coming to academic faculty, graduate student and postdoctoral bargaining rights in Alberta

  1. Reynold Reimer

    April 10th, 2017

    This is the kind of action that makes me proud to be an NDP supporter. This sort of progress will stop if we restore the right wing nuts to power

    Reply
  2. Athabascan

    April 10th, 2017

    Winning the right to strike would seem like a victory on paper, but the flipside is a nightmare waiting to happen. I can foresee a failed post secondary institution like Athabasca University locking out its faculty association in the future, and using that mechanism to fix their perennial fiscal woes at the expense of workers.

    Certainly the previous presidents and Board of Governors would have jumped at the chance to lock out staff to bolster the bottom line. The NDP should have retained binding arbitration for Post secondary sector.

    As for the idea this new legislation will fix the problem of itinerant sessionals, this is misguided. That situation will not change. Many sessionals in Alberta universities and colleges are already part of the same union/associations as tenured professors, yet do not enjoy the same benefits or job security. This group of workers are so marginalized and powerless according to the collective agreements negotiated by faculty associations (unions) that at some level they are being disadvantaged by their own unions. Bill 7 does not address any of this. That’s why their lot will not improve due to Bill 7.

    Bill 7 was needed, but I would caution anyone against thinking this will fix all the labour relations problems in AB post-secondary institutions. The right to strike is not an option favoured by most academics in Alberta, so I doubt that should be cause for celebration.

    The other thing the government failed to do is provide an adjustment period or a moratorium on strikes and lockouts so that academics could prepare for the new landscape. As it is workers who are represented by unions that haven’t accumulated a strike fund will be disadvantaged. It’s simple logic folks: How do you strike or even threaten to strike when you have no strike fund? What do you think employers’ positions will be during negotiations when they know this?

    Reply
    • PJP

      April 11th, 2017

      Please double check for yourself, but I see a section in the bill (58.7(6)) that allows for participants to voluntarily go to binding arbitration (if that is something already in that institution’s collective agreement).

      Further, I believe the 5 year phasing-in period, where the existing associations remain intact, is designed to allow groups, like sessionals, to ‘organize’. If they wanted, those employees could form their own union, stay with their current group, or even join another union – perhaps CUPE or Teamsters or another?

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        April 13th, 2017

        hey PJP,

        Of course the decision to go to binding arbitration is voluntary, and mutual. And there’s the rub. Employers won’t agree to binding arbitration if they want to maintain their power over unions during negotiations. Instead they will threaten to lock out the union in order to exert pressure on them and to save money.

        Binding arbitration should have been made mandatory for this sector, and not left up to employers to decide, which will effectively be the case. The NDP have unwittingly handed universities a huge weapon to bully academic unions.

        Reply
  3. Maryinga

    April 10th, 2017

    Thank you David for another ‘good news’ post. As someone who received my Teacher’s certificate from the University of Calgary, after doing graduate work in the states, I have been shocked recently to realize the extent of the right wing war on intellectual freedom.

    My first degree was from the University of Saskatchewan, where fees were something under 400.00 for the entire year, and our courses were taught by full fledged, tenured professors. I learned to think critically and to read widely from some of the best scholars of the day…..so I am saddened and appalled by what corporate ‘profit taking’ has done to university education since I graduated.

    Giving academics the freedom to work collectively, bargain collaboratively for decent salaries and fair working conditions may begin the turn abound that is needed. Because the present system, where a few tenured old men do well, and the majority of younger scholars toil away as perpetual sessionals is a shameful one.

    Academic Freedom???

    Perhaps we can’t afford such an ideal in a market based economy, but our kids are the losers if that is the case. And if post-war Saskatchewan could deliver quality education from full professors, something has gone badly awry with our values since.

    Reply
    • April 12th, 2017

      Unions only promote seniority rules that favor “tenured old men”. True performance measures would go far beyond years of service.

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        April 13th, 2017

        Hey Doug,

        I hear that a lot. Unfortunately, the notion of merit and true performance measures are myths.

        There is no true performance measures for academics. As with all workplaces, even the so-called best merit/performance systems are mired in office politics that tend to bias those systems. That is especially true in the highly politicized university environment.

        Seniority, at least is an objective measure, and it can serve as a valuable proxy for performance. If only because experience is a great advantage when striving for high performance. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than so-called “true performance measures” that don’t really exist except in HR textbooks.

        Oh, and by the way, there are a lot of ‘tenured old women” too, though probably not as many as men.

        Reply
  4. David

    April 10th, 2017

    Jason Kenney is often very cautious in what he says, so I was a bit surprised he was going to repeal everything the NDP did. I suppose it was meant to motivate his more fervent supporters, but of course it is a promise he can’t keep. The above is a good example of why. I suppose he hopes those supporters are gullible enough not to realize he has made a promise he can’t keep. Likewise, his promise to get rid of the carbon tax is a fiction too – if he gets rid of the Alberta carbon tax, it would be immediately replaced by a federal one of the same amount. Again I suppose he hopes his supporters are not smart enough to figure that one out either. Their net savings from his tax repeal will be $ NIL.

    Whether he plans to keep the PC party around or not, he already seems well on the way to mastering the old PC art or promising one thing and doing another.

    Reply
    • April 12th, 2017

      As soon as he delivers budget cuts in real dollars, he will be the most accomplished Premier in a generation. AB is spending itself into oblivion.

      Reply
      • Athabascan

        April 13th, 2017

        Austerity budgets do not work.

        All they do is enrich the top 1% while the bottom 99% suffer through loss of jobs, and government services. Meanwhile all the savings resulting from cutbacks are gobbled up by corporations, political cronies, and the one-percenters.

        Alberta will recover quicker than Saskatchewan ever will, because the NDP is committed to keeping as many Albertans working as possible – that’s how you recover from 44 years of PC rule.

        You do not mend and economy by creating more unemployment. This the NDP understand, while the right-wingers do not.

        Reply
        • April 15th, 2017

          Couldn’t disagree more. the benefits accrue to all citizens in the form of less money wasted on debt servicing. The only beneficiaries from large deficits are public sector employees enjoying above market compensation. The Klein cuts in the nineties were exactly what Alberta needed. This province has been off course for going on fifteen years.

          Reply
  5. Lars

    April 10th, 2017

    I believe that there is already a Canadian union for academics – the Canadian Association of University Teachers. It at least acts like a union (as a former sessional instructor, I had little to do with CAUT, but it was there).

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      April 11th, 2017

      Lars,

      CAUT acts as kind of lobby group for university teachers. It is not a union, or association that negotiates collective agreements with universities. Certainly CAUT does not hold strike votes. Academics in most Canadian universities are represented by their own separate unions that take their marching orders from the members within those unions and not CAUT.

      Therefore, it is incorrect to state CAUT acts like a union. It more accurately acts as an collective that advocates in the interest of professors.

      Reply
  6. Michael

    April 11th, 2017

    Lars: CAUT is not a union, and does not engage in collective bargaining.

    Maryinga: Faculty associations in Alberta already act in collective bargaining on behalf of their members (who, at least here at U of Calgary, DO include sessional instructors), and do a good job, within the fiscal restraints we have faced most of the time in the last 25 years. Negotiations are usually reasonably cordial, partly because of the recourse to binding arbitration that is available. I don’t think many of us would want to go on strike under most circumstances, and allowing administrations to lock us out is not a good thing. As for “a few tenured old men” doing well, please look at the Sunshine list from last year for Alberta – it is full of young people (some assistant profs make the list, which is jaw-dropping) and of course there are many women as well.

    Athabascan: you are perfectly right that this will help very little to fix the plight of sessional instructors, who are often already represented by faculty associations. Keeping in mind that sessionals include all sorts of different types of people (eg. postdoctoral fellows also being paid to do research; community members like doctors, vets, and lawyers already earning decent livings; symphony orchestra members teaching individual students, etc.), there are indeed many highly qualified academics who have to work very hard for low pay and limited benefits, with poor prospects of tenure-track employment. And this in spite of explicit policies in collective agreements that state that sessionals should not be used to fill ongoing needs. There is no easy solution to this, but David probably exaggerates the extent to which sessionals are used, at least in the research Universities. They are rare in faculties like Science and engineering, though more common in arts.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      April 13th, 2017

      Sorry, Michael,

      If anything David underestimates how extensive the reliance on sessionals is among all universities, including research universities.

      Administrators are addicted to this source of cheap academic labour that they exploited for a few decades. Sessionals are used extensively in every faculty including the hard sciences – check your facts.

      Reply
      • Michael

        April 14th, 2017

        I can’t speak for every University, but here at U of C, sessionals are few and far between in Science, and I don’t think Engineering and medicine are terribly different. In a typical academic year our department might hire 4 or 5 sessionals (and the trend is if anything going down), as opposed to having over 50 full time tenured or tenure track Professors and Instructors. I assure you that my facts are correct, as I was responsible for hiring sessionals for three years.
        All three of my children attended U of C (one is still studying for a professional degree). Oldest son was taught by maybe 2 sessionals in 4 years (2 courses out of 40), second one perhaps 4 (will have to ask him), daughter probably 4 in two years, but she was in Arts and Science.
        I don’t want to deny the very real challenges faced by people who have to work as sessionals for many years – they are blatantly exploited, and given their high levels of qualification and dedication to teaching, this is unacceptable. But again, not all sessionals are equal in terms of why they are doing that job, and their use across different faculties (and in different institutions) is quite variable. Mount Royal and St. Mary’s use lots…

        Reply
  7. April 12th, 2017

    This is the kind of action that makes me ashamed of my province. Collective bargaining for academic staff is an affront to quality and productivity as it prevents the Province from paying fair (aka market) wages and readily dismissing poor performers. Of greater concern, it counters academic freedom as workers will be compelled to support union group think instead seeking truth. Will union muzzled academics, for example, study productivity levels of unionized vs. non-unionized workers, or measure outcomes from Alberta’s high levels of education and health spending relative to provinces which spent for less?

    2019 can’t come soon enough.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      April 13th, 2017

      Fair wages? WTF is that?

      Is it Doug Brown who will decide what a professor should earn? If not Doug than who?

      That’s the whole point of collective bargaining: A whole group of disparate influencers get together and agree to what they will accept.

      What? That process of intelligent stakeholders agreeing is not good enough for Doug and his ilk? It seems like a pretty democratic and civil way to do it for the primary stakeholders.

      I would suggest Doug do his homework before commenting on a process he knows nothing about.

      Reply
      • April 15th, 2017

        A fair wage is the level at which someone is willing to do the job.

        Reply
      • April 15th, 2017

        Collective bargaining is an anonomly. Everywhere else in society collusion and forced association is illegal.

        The group of intelligent stakeholders is incomplete if it doesn’t include measurement of outcomes versus inputs. Unionization in the public should be illegal as the employer has theoretically infinite ability to provide inputs.

        Reply
        • David Climenhaga

          April 15th, 2017

          The author of this comment, obviously, never attended school. DJC

          Reply
          • Doug

            April 15th, 2017

            Yes. First three degrees at U of A: BSc Genetics, MBA Finance, MSc Biochem. Then U of C: MSc Software Engineering. Then University of Hong Komg: MD. Worked full time during all but MD. I owe AUPE eternal gratitude as I worked for the provincial government while attending U of A, which provided lots of opportunity to study while on the government clock.

          • Athabascan

            April 16th, 2017

            David

            I think you’re right. Unless of course you count the fictitious “University of Hong Komg” that Doug said he supposedly attended.

          • David Climenhaga

            April 16th, 2017

            I’m sure the M in Hong Kong was just a typo. I have to defer to Doug’s list of schools he attended. Given that, though, I was astonished to learn that none of the esteemed institutions he mentions require students to sit and learn together in classrooms, or to meet certain standards of decorum while they do so. Perhaps that explains some things about the “Calgary School.” I could also have said Doug has obviously never attended church, although I am sure he will be right back at us with a list of the churches he worshiped in as well. So I’ll restrict myself to saying it’s likely Doug has never gotten an obvious point and probably is not very good with sarcasm either and leave it at that. DJC

          • Doug

            April 16th, 2017

            A bit rich coming fromimg someone who attend Last Chance U to earn a worthless liberal arts degree where gainful employment is limited to working for a bible college or public relations for union thugs. Are you saying U of A is not a respected institution? I attended classes mostly in the evenings and did thesis work early in the morning (4:30 AM at what was called Heritage Medical in the 90’s) and weekends. Outside the union bubble life can be stressful, risky and non-standardized.

            This site is a waste of time other than reaffirming that public sector organized labor is regressive. Ultimately, government is transactional. Anything that stands in the way of efficiency holds back society. The private sector has advanced living standards by continually pushing productivity. The public sector has lagged as government has become an employer of last resort, rather than its rightful mandate as a service provider of last resort.

          • David Climenhaga

            April 16th, 2017

            I agree with you about one thing: The U of A is an excellent institution. One of my offspring is completing a PhD there with the enthusiastic support of her pater. As for the rest, you are clearly a literal-minded, humourless, right-wing troll who has insulted the University of Victoria, a fine institution, the Globe and Mail, a fine newspaper, and the Bible, an excellent book and one of my personal favourites, whether or not you consider it to be a work of fiction, as do many of my readers, including, I believe, Athabascan. As for this site being a waste of time, we make a strenuous effort in the tradition of the Golden Age of Canadian Journalism to prune AlbertaPolitics.ca of inferior readers from time to time. Consider yourself pruned. Now go and sin no more … DJC

    • Michael

      April 13th, 2017

      This is wrong on so many levels, I am afraid.

      First of all academic staff ALREADY have the right to collective bargaining through their faculty association and have had it for years. Second, collective bargaining does not prevent the Institution (it is not directly the Province) from paying fair, or even competitive wages. Salaries on appointment are negotiated between employer and employee and some are very high (check the sunshine list) and include market supplements in areas where attracting faculty is deemed to be more challenging because of market pressures on salaries outside of academica. Annual increases in salaries (not cost of living adjustments which are negotiated through collective bargaining) at Alberta research Universities are merit-based; faculty considered to be non-productive are assigned a zero increment, and if this happens twice, procedures are triggered which would normally lead to dismissal of the faculty member, tenured or not.

      Faculty are unionized at many Universities in Canada, and when they are not formally unionized, they engage in collective bargaining through their Faculty Association. This has not been a barrier to academic freedom anywhere.

      Reply
  8. April 13th, 2017

    Overall, this is a good bill. I think it has two key problems.

    First, it restricts the rights of academics to choose a different bargaining agent for five years. This is unnecessary: if a current bargaining agent is so bad that a majority of workers want a different one, they should be allowed to make that choice immediately.

    Second, the lack of a transition period from mandatory arbitration to strike-lockout is profoundly unfair to those associations currently in bargaining. It hands their employers a big lever with no real chance for the unions to prepare. This action was contrary to the promises made by the government about a transition period. So far, the only explanation I have heard is that this is intended to allow employers to minimize labour costs (perhaps there is another explanation).

    You can read more analysis here: http://albertalabour.blogspot.ca/2017/04/alberta-rushes-profs-towards-strike.html

    Doug Brown’s hand wringing about unions stifling research is counter-factual. This history of academic freedom in Canada clearly demonstrates that employers are the key threat to academic freedom and academic unions are the bulwark against such interference. Unions have no real tools to pressure their members with whereas the employer can discipline or unofficially sanction speech it dislikes.

    Reply

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