Comment: Unionization of Professors Inevitable

Created 15 October 2013 11:10

by Robert F. Clift

We usually picture university professors as individuals: lecturing in classrooms, debating in seminars, or working on their research. When we picture them in groups, it’s typically at graduation, conferences or as part of a large research project.

So reports that University of Victoria academic staff have commenced a union certification drive and that faculty at SFU and UNBC are considering forming unions may, at first glance, seem a bit out of character.

However, throughout the long history of universities, professors have always worked collectively to protect academic freedom, the quality of education and research, and the integrity of the academy.

For the past 30 years in Canada, this collective action has largely taken the form of unionization. Today, approximately 80% of university academic staff in Canada are members of faculty unions.

The idea that this relatively elite group needs to form a union may seem a bit absurd. It’s not like they are being forced to work in dangerous conditions for substandard pay.

Professors, librarians and other academic staff are, however, being forced to reduce the quality of their teaching, research and service, and are increasingly being bullied by their bosses.

Long gone are the days when professors enjoyed relative freedom from interference by university managers and government officials. Directly and indirectly, today’s professors are constrained in many ways in their ability to provide the high-quality teaching and research that their students, and the taxpayers, expect.

Their professional judgment is routinely questioned, and sometimes overridden, by university managers with little knowledge of the faculty member’s academic field. If academic staff resist this managerial bullying, they may be subject to retaliation ranging from petty bureaucratic roadblocks all the way to putting their careers at risk.

Truly hideous cases, such as the persecution of University of Toronto whistleblower Dr. Nancy Olivieri, will make headlines and garner international attention and action. However, small-scale bullying and intimidation is routine and goes on relatively unnoticed. The affected individuals have to put up with the misery or leave their university in hope of finding better working conditions elsewhere.

Unfortunately, managerial bullying is not the result of a few bad eggs. It is the result of political and economic forces driving the universities in particular directions, heedless of the effects on teaching, research and the working lives of academics.

Rather than accept these difficulties as inevitable, professors, librarians and other academic staff have organized faculty associations to act as a brake on managerial excess and to protect the individual and collective rights of faculty members.

For many years, university faculty associations operated in a bit of legal limbo. They were effective only to the extent that senior university managers agreed there was more value in solving problems than in creating conflicts.

However, the changing political and economic landscape has created a new breed of university manager who has traded leadership for ‘boss-ship’ and who is often more concerned with the bottom line than the quality of the student experience and scholarly output. This new breed of manager would rather impose their will than cooperatively solve problems.

Consequently, faculty associations can no longer afford to exist in a legal limbo. When university managers are increasingly using legal means to enforce their will, faculty associations need access to the widest range of legal tools to protect their members and the quality of education and research.

It’s for this reason that academic staff at BC’s research universities are considering forming unions. There is no other legal framework that gives an employees’ organization more power to protect its members and to solve problems than does the Labour Relations Code.

That university faculty feel they need the protection of a union to properly do their jobs is an indication that the university is operating less like a community of scholars and students and more like a private corporation. Although academic staff will never give up on the community ideal, they can no longer ignore the very real change in the way our universities operate.

To this end, unionization of university faculty in BC is inevitable. I will not be at all surprised if, in the very near future, UVic, SFU and UNBC join UBC, RRU and the vast majority of Canadian universities in forming a faculty union.

Robert F. Clift is the executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of BC and a PhD candidate in higher education policy at UBC.