Saving the Academy within the Corporate University: The Brandon University Strike of 2011

Doug Lorimer, Professor Emeritus of History, and WLUFA’s Chief Negotiator, 1989-2009

Putting it all on the Line: inside the Brandon Strike of 2011, CAUT.


During its successful 45-day strike during the fall term of 2011, the Brandon University Faculty Association (BUFA) faced a nightmare conjured up by the new style of managers of the corporate university. Our present cohort of university administrators take their inspiration, not from the traditions of the academy, but from exemplars external to the university – the corporate elite. This elite by their financial strategies and management practices have given us, not economic growth, but a stagnant recession in which the only movement is the reallocation of wealth, resources and opportunities from the many to the few. At Brandon, at Laurier, and at universities across Canada, the same regressive features of corporate management are evident.

Consequently, the Brandon strike has a national significance both for the issues at stake, and for the skill and solidarity by which members of BUFA met and resisted the challenge of administrators committed to pushing their corporate agenda. Recognizing the significance of the Brandon strike, CAUT has made available on the net a comprehensive report by Joe Dolecki, Associate Professor of Economics, who served both as chief negotiator and BUFA president. Dolecki, the BUFA executive and the bargaining team faced an aggressive administration determined not simply to negotiate a regressive set of non-monetary and monetary proposals, but to break the strength and solidarity of the BUFA membership. This challenge was difficult enough, but the faculty union also faced intervention by a third party, the Manitoba government.

Dolecki’s report sets out the agenda of the leaders of the corporate university. These all too familiar initiatives include expanding the growth in the number of senior administrators, who often have neither academic credentials nor experience, and yet have a rank superior to academic deans (and salaries that greatly exceed what contract faculty earn for teaching several  courses). Is it any wonder that within the senior administrative cohort academic resources get squeezed out in competition with other priorities? The prerogatives and role of the principal academic body, Senate, even if enshrined in the university act, are diminished in  favour of new bodies created under administrators’ control. Of course, Senates have two strikes against them – (1) they are public bodies with the capacity to provide for transparency and accountability within the academy, and (2) a majority of Senators are faculty. In place of these collegial bodies, our corporate managers prefer to rely on outside consultants often unacquainted with or even hostile to the academy’s historic forms of governance (e.g. IPRM consultants). These transformations are part of a larger initiative to marginalize faculty within the academy. Although this process has taken on new dimensions in the last few years, it is not new.

When WLUFA certified in 1988 (25 years ago this past September), I like to think we started a second wave of unionization among Ontario universities. Eventually, even unlikely prospects such as Queen’s and Western certified, until faculty in all but three universities in Ontario had collective agreements under the Labour Relations Act. At the time that WLUFA certified, real incomes were declining in the face of rampant inflation.

Without a legally binding contract, we were unable to protect academic freedom, collegial processes or even to pursue individual or collective grievances. The political capacity of faculty associations to build strong unions and to negotiate comprehensive agreements, came first from the solidarity of the membership, and secondly from a telling reality within the academy, as true today as it was 25 years ago.

Faculty, both full- and part-time, are the agents through which the university fulfills its academic mission to provide quality education to its students and to advance knowledge through scholarship and research.

While university presidents may pay lip service to this academic mission, they, like corporate managers, have led the way in the marginalization of faculty and the casualization of academic labour. (According to Laurier’s Human Resources reports between 2008 and 2012 there has been a 44% increase in management to a 7% increase in full-time faculty for a 23% increase in student enrollment; the same period saw an increase of 49% in the number of CAS taught classes.) We engage our best and brightest students in the life of the academy, then after graduation offer them part-time employment as inadequately paid piece-work professionals without job security. While full and part-time faculty have tried to protect conventions of academic freedom, collegial governance and the conditions of academic work, there are now signs of a virus spreading from south of the border. The misnamed ‘right to work’ ideology, antagonistic to unions and promising an end to the Rand Formula, threatens our associations at the local, provincial and national level.

BUFA was no different from the rest of us in facing these issues in a hostile political climate. What added fuel to the fire was an administration determined to go beyond bargaining for a set of regressive changes to the contract. It engaged in a strategy designed to free the academy from the encumbrance of a faculty union. In his report, Dolecki complains of the university’s use of an anti-union labour lawyer as their chief negotiator. Now most labour lawyers who serve employers are to some degree antagonistic to unions.

If they are willing to operate within the conventions of collective bargaining and the employer is really desirous of an agreement, their experience and skill can lead to greater efficiency at the bargaining table. At Brandon, the labour lawyer and chief negotiator was clearly given a mandate that went beyond the usual goals of collective bargaining by making the union itself a target. The administration apparently sought this end regardless of its harmful, long-term consequences for Brandon as an academic community. As Dolecki observes, the breakdown of trust between the parties made progress at the table even through conciliation and mediation near impossible.

Dolecki’s report provides a detailed narrative of the strike. This narrative is instructive for its focus on the political work of the executive, and on communications with the membership. At well-attended general meetings, members collectively resisted administration efforts to break the strike, and resolved to sustain their position in spite of external political pressures. BUFA also engaged in effective communications with interested outside parties. Even though the administration encouraged students to cross picket lines, organized student bodies were critical of the administration and supported the faculty. On the other hand, some parents, the local chamber of commerce, and MLAs from Brandon supported the administration.

Even more troubling was the role of the NDP provincial government.

Although supposedly friendly to labour, the provincial government had limited the collective bargaining rights of its own civil service unions by a wage freeze. The administration claimed this freeze applied to all of the public sector including university employees. BUFA using its own political intelligence received advice that the freeze did not apply. The mixed messages from various government officials largely worked in favour of the administration, and hindered any progress through conciliation and mediation.

Here there are differences between Manitoba and Ontario. In Ontario, the parties cannot lock-out or strike until a provincial conciliator issues a no-board report. By Dolecki’s chronology, the strike commenced on October 12 just as conciliation was to get underway, and the strike continued through mediation. As the strike went into its second month, the minister of labour made a more decisive intervention favouring the employer. She encouraged the parties to go to arbitration. The employer had already called for arbitration, but BUFA’s experience in conciliation and mediation made it distrustful of third party interventions. BUFA placed its trust in the pressures of the strike itself to push the parties toward a settlement. By this time, the parties were only $224,000 apart. In the end, two blunders by the employer’s chief negotiator forced the administration to move to a settlement. First, he attempted to use a provision of the Manitoba Labour Relations Act to compel the union to go to arbitration but failed to observe the timeframe required. The minister of labour intervened once again ordering a vote on the employer’s last offer. At a BUFA membership meeting, members resolved to reject this last offer. When this news leaked to the administration, its chief negotiator attempted to change the last offer without giving due notice to the union. The Labour Relations Board correctly refused to change the employer’s last offer, and prepared to conduct the vote.

Fearing it might lose, the administration called BUFA back to the bargaining table. The parties soon reached a settlement based largely on BUFA’s last position including the preservation of collegial processes on appointments, tenure and promotion. With the rescheduling of classes, faculty and students completed the fall term.

For Joe Dolecki, BUFA shared in common with faculty associations across Canada the “reality of the ongoing transformation of the Academy into a ‘Knowledge Factory’.” The lesson of the BUFA strike, according to Dolecki, is that the defence of the academy through collective bargaining requires an understanding that “rights are not granted, but taken through determined, conscious, and unified collective action”. Consequently, it is “only through such action that they are preserved, strengthened and …restored.”

At Laurier, the CAS bargaining unit is at the negotiating  table,* and the full-time unit will be there shortly. Full-time faculty need to understand that the CAS struggle is their struggle. Whatever concessions, if any, may be negotiated at the CAS table will haunt the full-time negotiations. Full and part-time faculty are the guardians of the academy. Just like BUFA, WLUFA and its members will be engaged in saving the academy within our corporate university.

NOTE: *Doug completed this article in early September.

Doug Lorimer first served on a WLUFA bargaining team in 1974 in his second year at Laurier.  Following the certification of WLUFA, led by Joyce Lorimer, Doug served as chief negotiator for the first full-time collective agreement in 1989-90, and for each subsequent renewal of the contract until he retired in 2010. He also served as chief negotiator for the first CAS agreement in 2001, and renewals in 2004 and 2007.

Being one of the longest serving negotiators in the province, Doug served first as chair of the OCUFA Collective Bargaining Committee, and then as chair of the CAUT Collective Bargaining Committee. Upon retirement, and in recognition of their contributions, CAUT awarded Joyce and Doug, the Donald Savage Award. OCUFA also named its new award for collective bargaining, the ‘Lorimer Award’.

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