Faculty Associations in the 21st Century: It’s Time for a Change

This is an article from the WLUFA Advocate November 2014 3.2.

Although it celebrated the past, the 50th Anniversary Conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Unions was focused on building a better future. A central theme of the late October conference was the growing casualization of the university sector. One perspective on that issue comes from WLUFA Member Michele Kramer (Contract Faculty, English & Film Studies), whose (condensed) paper presented on a panel on building an inclusive associations is printed here.

Like most “CAS” stories, it’s difficult not to begin this talk without a bit of an autobiography – and a brief personal anecdote. The year was 1996 – and I was a single mom to two daughters, ABD for my PhD in English at McMaster University and roughly $100,000 in debt to both provincial and federal governments – when my phone rang. A previous mentor of mine was letting me know that the English Dept. at Laurier was looking for some “temporary help,” and he wondered if I would be interest-ed in taking on a course or two for some extra cash that year. It didn’t take me long to decide that it was better to make money than to owe it so I said yes.

During my very first week as a part-time professor for Laurier, another senior, tenured professor who I knew quite well approached me and said, “What are you doing here? I don’t care what it takes; go borrow some money from someone else, go finish your dissertation, and get a job. You don’t need to do this. Run!” At the time, I laughed and reassured him that I had everything under control…

Of course, the fact is that I didn’t. The work kept coming, and I kept saying yes, and the last four chapters of my dissertation became a distant dream I once had about a book I never wrote. But that’s not why I’m telling this story. Last year, that same professor was due to retire – and we bumped into each other very close to the spot where he had first told me to run away from con-tract teaching. We spoke for a few minutes about his retirement plans and wished good things to each other. Just before we went our separate ways, how-ever, he shook his head wearily and said – and I’ll never forget this – “Maybe I was wrong to tell you to quit this con-tract nonsense. Maybe I’m the dinosaur. Maybe the future of the university is you – not me…”

Every one of us knows exactly what he meant. He wasn’t attempting to elevate the status of contract teaching at all. In fact, he meant quite the opposite. He was saying that the core of the university had changed – that the university he had joined in the early 70s was not the university of 2013. He meant that the 21st century university had different goals – different values – and I could tell he was glad to be leaving this new university behind.
But what does this story have to do with “Creating Inclusive Organizations,”? It’s simple – and, I suppose, not so simple at the same time.

My fellow panelists are addressing all manner of issues of inclusion and diversity but I’d like to address one issue of “inclusion” that, I think, few permanently employed faculty or their faculty associations are adequately prepared to speak openly and honestly about – and that’s the idea of working towards a more full inclusion of contract professors in their bargaining units. For better or for worse, this is something that must be talked about because, as my retired colleague noted, tenured positions are the ones facing an ice-age – not contract ones. As Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage point out in a recent issue of Academic Matters, universities are moving away from career-length job security and towards a business model of “flexible” labour. And while the neoliberal university has used this growing culture of precarious employment to place wedges between permanent and contract faculty – usually through con-cessions approaches in negotiating collective agreements – it has also brought the spheres of these faculty groups much closer together. Contract faculty have recognized this convergence for quite some time, but it’s an idea that neither permanent faculty nor faculty associations are quite ready to ad-dress. The majority of faculty in Canada are organized either as two completely distinct unions or, just as at Wilfrid Laurier, as two limbs of a single Association body and, frequently lately, this arrangement seems to be working to undermine what could be (what should be) the collective strength of ALL faculty to band together in order to shape our institutions and to ensure that ALL of us who make up the “guts” of our universities – the teaching, research and service that makes a university what it is – are valued and respected, both fairly and equitably.

But the fact of the matter is that unions and associations need to change – just as permanent faculty need to change. It’s time for all of us to recognize that our interests are not so very far apart anymore. Contract faculty bargaining units that function as a branch of a single faculty association have always been forced to recognize their proximity to that other, full-time collective agreement, but few permanent faculty seem willing to reciprocate. Faculty associations, needing to act according to the will of their membership, frequently seem some-what powerless to convince the “right arm” that it needs to pay attention to how its actions affect the “left arm’s” working conditions.

I remember sitting in on the information sessions for organizing CAS at Laurier way back when. Both CUPE and WLUFA made presentations to us – and we decided, as a group, that we would rather be represented as “faculty” than as “public employees.” It was important to us. And then came the news that the existing Faculty Association – whose members were all full-time faculty – would not accept us as a part of their bargaining unit – only as a separate branch of the Faculty Association. At the time, we accepted this – and we believed, wrongly I think, that at least we would be perceived to be a part of the faculty whole – that we would at least be considered to be brothers, sisters, col-leagues by our fellow, full-time faculty, association members. Of course, we were young and naive then. And, over time, we’ve learned our lessons as all naughty children must do.

We know, for instance, that, too often, our collective bargaining will take into consideration the rights of “real” faculty before our own, even though – during full-time negotiations, similar considerations are not given to us. I’m not saying that this is completely wrong because, even as a long-term contract professor, I still believe strongly in the “idea” of a university. But I hear the fear that rumbles, only barely ex-pressed, in articles such as Herbert Pimlott’s “Solidarity in the Ivory Tow-er” or in Catherine Stukel’s letter to the editor in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I can see why our faculty associations are torn by the idea of representing both the (cheap and disposable) faculty members that administrations and permanent faculty won’t publically admit they want and need to use, as well as the (more expensive, tenured) faculty that universities want the public to believe they still value and nurture.

I’ve been on both sides of this fence – a member of the bargaining team for contract faculty negotiations at Laurier since 2004, and a support staff member of the full-time bargaining team since 2010. More and more, I witness the way that administrations want to codify and qualify the teaching done by its full-time faculty. Even while universities refuse to give contract faculty – their true “teaching only” contingent, by the way – any kind of job security or recognition for long-service, administrations now frequently want to compensate and evaluate full-time faculty based on metrics: how many bodies are being taught; how many tuition dollars pass through their classrooms; how many students enrol in their courses. More and more, full-time faculty negotiations include the bargaining for
“teaching only” positions. And, more and more, administrations insist on clauses in collective agreements that allow for the review, discipline and punishment (in various ways and to various extremes) of both their contract and tenured faculty members if those members do not meet the requirements of the students/consumers. In CAS bargaining, the ad-ministration’s proposals for review and discipline can be quite sinister – but full-time bargaining is also seeing administrations propose language that has a similar dark tone – language where promotion, tenure and compensation are tied to “production.”
We are, you and I, my full-time colleague, not too different from each other in the eyes of the university administration. We both need to produce bodies with degrees. We both need to attract bodies in sufficient numbers into our classrooms. The administration uses my (supposed) lack of “scholarship” against me at the CAS bargaining table – tells me I’m not a “real” academic and that any trained monkey with a textbook could do my job. But at your bargaining table, it is becoming clear that whatever you produce on your university-funded sabbatical is of little interest to our administration. What they really want to know is if you’ve managed to entice more than 200 Jane and John Does to enrol in your “Harry Potter and Medieval Symbolism” class.

And so I wonder, sometimes, if this pres-sure and this fear is why you won’t accept me as part of our “diverse” faculty complement? Is this why you create reasons to distance yourself from me when I’m bargaining – or when I ask if you’ll sit at our CAS table for Fair Employment Week? Is this why you bristle uncomfortably at our department meetings when I raise my voice? Is this why there are more tenured faculty members from the Maritimes on my picket line (courtesy of the CAUT Defense Fund) than there are from my own department or university? Is this why almost every article you publish in defense of the rights of contingent labour always seems always to circle back to the need to protect tenured faculty positions instead of focussing on what real steps tenured faculty could take to improve the working conditions of their CAS colleagues?

I ask these questions because they speak to the nature of “diversity” in my own faculty association. I look at it sometimes and wonder about the challenge it faces: to represent an – at least for now – all-powerful tenured faculty contingent and, at the same time, to represent the interests of a truly dispossessed “new faculty majority.” I wonder, as Jack Longmate does, whether “these differences create a conflict of interests rather than a community of interests” and if, in fact, this “give(s) rise to the question of fair representation?”

The fact of the matter, though, is that I still believe in the strength of my union – and in its ability to change and grow with the attacks levelled at it by our administration. Like Ross and Savage, I believe that “faculty associations are one of the only spaces that unite professors across departmental and faculty divides” to “help us develop a collective orientation as teachers and researchers.” As a contract-faculty member, however, I also know that full-time faculty – and faculty associations – need a deeper understanding that the struggles of contingent faculty are rapidly becoming the struggles of tenure-stream faculty. Contract faculty have long been thought of as the “whiners’ of the university – and the hostile response to Ira Basen’s CBC documentary “Class Struggle” lends credence to this – but it’s time for faculty associations that cater mainly to tenured, “full-time” Members to look at academic unions with new eyes.

The ice-age is upon us. And our collective survival depends on all of us seeing that one ecosystem cannot be bargained away in the interests of another’s. I truly believe that, in the 21st century, we will survive only as one.


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