Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.
That does not stop employers from playing the victim card. Ontario has just come through an election campaign in which the leader of the Conservative Party tried to spook Ontarians with takes of the nefarious deeds of phantom “union bosses” holding the province hostage. Fortunately, Ontarians saw through this nonsense and sent him packing. One would hope that thoughtful people would draw the appropriate lesson: one should try to convince by argument and not by demonizing threat. Sadly, my employer, the University of Windsor, seems determined to try to resolve the on-going round of collective bargaining with my union, the Windsor University Faculty Association, by the time honoured tactic of union blaming.
In a letter to the Faculty dated July 3rd, 2014, President Alan Wildeman wrote: “It is now more than five months since my January 28th public address when I expressed to the campus community the desire going forward to have new collective agreements in place at the time the existing ones expire. This was done with the goal of breaking the persistent pattern of negotiations carrying on through the summer, and bargaining groups either threatening or taking strike action in the fall. This is a pattern that causes tremendous anxiety for students, their families and the greater community. While this pattern may represent the tried and true tradition of collective bargaining and forcing an employer’s hand, and unions might think it appropriate to threaten strike action at a time when it puts the most pressure on the employer, it is a pattern that the University cannot continue to quietly accept.”
I suppose we should be proud that the administration, by threatening (but so far not acting upon the threat) to lock us out at the earliest possible moment is copying our purported tactics. For of course, the summer is when they have greatest leverage. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Still, while it is in fact the case that bargaining has often stretched from May until October, it has never been the explicit strategy of WUFA to back administration into a corner. We have been on strike exactly twice in 50 years and we have never gone into bargaining with a strike mandate in hand. We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.
Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner. It is of course true that any academic uni0n is in a more powerful position in the Fall, when a full slate of classes is running, than in the summer, when many members are away from campus and fewer classes are offered. Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).
It would seem that President Wildeman is working hard to push us in that direction. While the lockout date has come and gone and the university’s doors are still open to WUFA members, his letter of July 3rd threatens changes to the conditions of employment if WUFA does not acquiesce to administration demands by Monday, July 7th. Specifically, it warns that:
“The University will no longer make employer contributions to the Money Purchase Plan component of the Faculty Pension Plan (Article D of collective agreement);
ii) The University will cease to pay the premiums for all health insurance benefit coverages for WUFA members described in Article F of the collective agreement, including the Green Shield Supplemental Hospitalization Benefit Plan and Green Shield Extended Health Benefit Plan;
iii) The Grievance and Arbitration provisions in Article 39 of the collective agreement will no longer be in effect;
iv) The University will cease to honour requests for reimbursement of Professional Development and Membership Dues described in Article I of the collective agreement;
v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”
Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout. What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening. Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day. The assumption amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.
Rather than contribute constructively to the talks, the President’s letter accuses the union of distorting the University’s finances and ignoring the economic realities of the province of Ontario:
“We continue to be advised by WUFA’s bargaining team that it is their steadfast view that the university does not face a financial challenge, and that they should not have to do as all other employees have done. In contrast to the position of WUFA’s bargaining team, our fiscal challenge, as evidenced by $43M of realignments over the past six years and reductions in faculty and staff numbers, is real. It is a challenge being felt across the provincial and national postsecondary system, and it is a challenge clearly articulated in the provincial policy on differentiation across the university and college sector.”
I will not get into the specifics of WUFA’s analysis of the University’s finances here, save to note that the same university that has cut 43 million dollars from its operating budget (which is what “realignment” means) has embarked on an ambitious building program that will cost well in excess of 100 million dollars by the time it is complete. One can argue, as the President does, that this money was specifically earmarked for capital improvements and is thus not money taken from the Operating Budget. Even if one accepts that argument as a matter of accounting practices, the fact remains that money is being found for construction at a time when the university has not been hiring at a pace to keep up with retirements. As a consequence, faculty student ratios are increasing even though overall enrolment increases have been modest. The real issue is priorities, not accounting tables.
As for the provincial situation, the President is correct to argue that all post-secondary institutions across the province are facing real challenges to their finances. Yet, these challenges have nothing to do with purportedly unreasonable faculty salary demands and everything to do with: a) decades of inappropriate taxation policy which has redistributed income to the richest Ontarians while starving vital public institutions of needed funds and b) a provincial post-secondary education policy which has put universities in competition with colleges and universities in competition with each other to attract students. These provincial policies, made worse by the long inadequacy of federal transfer payments in support of essential public institutions, explain whatever financial challenges we face, and should, if everyone is committed to the university’s intellectual and pedagogical missions, be ground for common cause.
Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.
Collegial self-governance should be the goal, but we all know from experience that it is increasingly distant from reality. At the University of Windsor, as at other universities across the country, the norm is too often imperious, top-down imposition of senior administration’s plans. True, we are sometimes “consulted,” but consultation is the prerogative of monarchs. Engaged discussion, argument, and collective decision-making by all with a stake in the outcome ought to be the practice of democratic public institutions (as well as the organizing principle of collective bargaining).
Sadly, (because I am thankful every day that this university allows me to teach, to have felt the joy of helping thousands of students to pursue truth rather than expediency, and to be a philosopher), I do not see much evidence of commitment at senior levels to this principle. I have no doubt that senior administration is sincere in its commitment to what it considers the institution to be, but the university is not a name, a ‘brand,’ or a collection of buildings. It is the work of teaching, learning, and research. Everything else, including administration, is a support function, important, yes, but support, not the raison d’ etre.