Labour unrest at Western and Carleton have, no doubt, students there worried. And as the academic year rolls on, more faculty associations across the country may reach tense periods in their bargaining processes. Could my school be next? But since students are not always familiar with the mechanics of such negotiations, the uncertainty can be unnerving. What follows is a brief outline of what goes on to help students feel a bit less uncertain.
At nearly every university in Canada, professors and other academics are members of a local faculty association, and in most cases those associations are legally unions according to provincial labour laws. For professors, most of those locals are part of a national union, The Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Faculty associations negotiate collective agreements with their university administrations and those agreements govern much of the academic workings of the university. Students may not be aware of it, but everyday things like the numbers of students in their classes may, in fact, be determined by the university’s contract with its faculty.
These contracts are made only for a few years at a time since neither side wants to be bound to one set of rules for too long — new problems may arise, after all. So, around the time the old agreement is set to run out, the two sides meet to try to negotiate a new deal. Often the changes are minor, but there are usually important things that both sides want to alter. Salaries, for example, are almost always on the table, but, as the recent disputes at Western and Carleton show, things like tenure and promotion can take centre stage.
Sometimes both sides agree within a few months to new terms and a contract is signed without much conflict. Just as often, though, negotiations drag on, impasses are reached, and things get tense. At some point, the faculty association’s executive may call a vote asking members to authorize a strike should they deem one necessary. Students should be aware that calling a vote for a strike mandate like this is very common in such negotiations and is nothing to be alarmed about. A strike vote is not a decision to strike; it’s only an authorization to call a strike if necessary. In fact, the strike vote may actually help resolve the problems because it shows the administration that faculty are serious.
When the vote is called, faculty association members typically vote in favour of a strike because if they vote against it, their bargainers lose almost all their power: they have to show the administration that, at the end of the day, they are willing to walk. That is the only real power faculty associations have.
If no agreement can be reached — and pending a variety of mediations that may be mandated by provinical laws — faculty may strike. They leave the university, cease their teaching and typically set up picket lines on campus. Depending on the particulars, the university itself may remain open so that students can go to the library, work in computer labs and so on, but those details will vary from one university to the next. Check the web sites of the university and of the faculty association itself to get information about your case.
If they do feel the need to walk out, associations typically try to arrange strikes for a time that will cause maximum disruption to the university’s operations so that the administration has plenty of motivation to make a deal. Faculty generally do not strike in the summer because the university can simply let them stay away without losing much revenue or causing a public uproar. Consequently, many associations try to time their job actions for the middle of the term to create fear that exams and courses might be in jeopardy if the situation is not resolved.
Does this sound like students are being used? They are. Associations want students and parents and members of the community to rally together and say “get those profs back to work for our kids’ sake!” which pressures the university to cave in to faculty demands.
At the same time, what is good for faculty is often good for students in the long run. If faculty win higher salaries at the bargaining table, it may mean recruiting better profs in the future. If they get better rules for academic freedom, it may mean better teaching because instructors are not worried about what they can and cannot say. If they get smaller class sizes, you may get more personal attention in your next course.
The good news is that for all the anxiety, faculty strikes are not usually very long (typically weeks, not months). So far as I know, no Canadian university has ever lost a term or semester due to a strike. So if there is a talk of a strike where you go to school, don’t panic. The strike is not likely to happen. If it does, it likely won’t be long, and by the time there is another one, you will have graduated and moved on.