The preservation of academic freedom, collegial self-governance, and quality education increasingly rests on strong faculty associations. However, the continued existence of strong faculty associations is threatened by the broader public sector labour relations context and the entrenchment of the neoliberal university. Several decades of neoliberal restructuring have fundamentally transformed universities, and in order to effectively confront the challenges that lie ahead, faculty associations will need to undergo their own transformations. In the process, they will have to rethink their approaches to representation and advocacy. While change never comes easily, the stakes are far too high for faculty associations to remain complacent.
The neoliberal university
As part of a more general trend in public services, Ontario universities have been subject to a process of neoliberalization, in which market-based needs, practices, criteria, and forms of delivery become dominant and displace other goals, such as the development of an informed and active citizenry or the redress of economic and social inequality. In the public sector, this is often referred to as “new public management.” Within universities, neoliberalization includes the tell-tale signs of a shift to “revenue-generating” programs and activities; cost recovery between units or departments; and a “client-centred” culture that attempts to cater to student-consumers, whose rising tuition bills account for an increasing proportion of university revenues. High fees fundamentally change students’ relationship with faculty and the university. Such changes ratchet up forms of competition between and within institutions. Universities increase recruitment and marketing efforts to chase enrolments—and the tuition dollars and per-student funding that accompany them—while individual programs must increasingly worry about the popularity of their degrees and courses.
There is also a growing corporate influence over university governance and administrative processes, in both material and ideological terms. The corporatization of universities is driven by an emphasis on fundraising for endowments, named chairs, and infrastructure. This gives wealthy individuals and corporations outside the university enormous influence over the kinds of activities that will be supported. Senior staff are also increasingly drawn from the private sector and have management rather than academic backgrounds, bringing with them elements of corporate culture. Alongside this is a shift away from the traditional practice of faculty cycling in and out of administrative roles. Instead, faculty increasingly become part of a permanent administrative cadre and less frequently return to faculty bargaining units. Compensation practices for senior administration also begin to mirror those in the private sector, with increases to the salaries of university presidents, provosts, and deans outpacing those of faculty and staff in order to remain “competitive” in an inter-university market for senior administrators. All of this profoundly changes administrators’ approach to labour relations.
These two changes—growing competitive pressures and the corporatization of the administrative cadre—are combining in specific ways to drive the restructuring of university communities. In addition to a growth in upward accountability processes that require faculty to document their worth and productivity through performance indicators, universities now seem permanently engaged in restructuring processes. This is driven by the presumed need to adapt to the “market” for postsecondary education and the constraints placed on funding by provincial governments. In Ontario, this has recently taken the form of the linked processes of differentiation, wherein universities specialize in particular areas and receive public funding tied to those specializations, and prioritization, in which each university decides which programs will be allowed to grow, stagnate, or wither. Insofar as faculty and their commitments to particular research and teaching priorities constitute barriers to the internal transformation of universities through prioritization and differentiation, their containment or marginalization in decision-making processes becomes an important goal for university administrators leading restructuring efforts.
The effects of neoliberalism on university work
These transformations have important effects on the quality of work and labour relations at universities. University work of all kinds is more precarious, as the “flexibility” to meet changing market demands requires a move away from career-length job security (in the form of tenure for faculty or permanency for staff) and towards contract-based teaching, project-based research staffing, and temporary support staff. The growing inequality amongst university workers that results creates real tensions, particularly when it comes to who can lay claim to the institution’s resources. Such tensions grow all the more as university administrations turn to concession bargaining in order to break the obstacles collective agreements place in the path to a market-driven university.
Which path for faculty associations?
In this context, faculty associations have a choice: to stay the course, using the tried and true methods to defend their own memberships and hoping they will weather the neoliberal storm. Or, they can alter their strategies to proactively confront, resist, and ultimately transform the neoliberal university.
The tried and true approach to faculty unionism is characterized by a narrow focus on members’ economic interests through collective bargaining, and procedural justice through defense of the collective agreement. Within this context, similar to a guild mentality, faculty are united by common identification with a shared profession with high educational barriers to entry that make the work both high status and high reward. There is much power inherent in the rarity of these skills, making professors central to the mission of the university and thus allowing faculty associations to make important gains in the realm of labour relations. The dominant guild approach has served faculty relatively well for many years, as evidenced by better pay, benefits, and other protections embedded in collective agreements.
However, the relatively privileged status of university professors is increasingly under threat. While the dominant guild approach may continue to be effective for some faculty in the short term, faculty associations risk diminished power over the long term if they do not move past the limits of the current model. In particular, the risks of reverse class resentment—the tendency of working-class people to misdirect their anger at better-off union members rather than wealthy corporations—are growing, given the context of economic stagnation, growing inequality, anti-tax populism, and the negative pressures of public sector finances on services and labour relations. This type of resentment is most acute towards the public sector since taxpayer revenue is used to pay the salaries and benefits of public sector workers, including university professors.
If the clock is running out on guild-based strategies, what are the alternatives? University faculty associations can learn much from some of the most innovative strategies emanating from other sectors of the labour movement. There, given the enormous downward pressures on both membership numbers and bargaining power, unions have had to develop ways to amplify their capacity to attract, mobilize, and educate members. They have also needed new strategies for pressuring various workplace and political decision-makers in an increasingly hostile anti-union environment. In our view, faculty associations should prioritize three strategies: 1) deepening our understanding of workplace power relations; 2) building strong and sustained cross-campus and community coalitions; and 3) engaging in meaningful political action to shape the policy environment.
As a first step, we need to move beyond our collective agreements and consider our workplaces: how they are organized, who does what work, who possesses what kinds of power, and where key decisions are made. Many union organizers use workplace mapping to develop such knowledge and to reveal social relationships of influence, key pressure points, and specific power dynamics. This mapping is often done to challenge assumptions about how the workplace operates, and it typically reveals surprising information about opinion leaders (often not the self-identified union activists) and sources of leverage in the institution.
Pursuing this method can also force faculty associations to tear down the self-imposed division between “union issues” and “academic issues,” the former dealt with in collective bargaining and the latter in Senate or faculty councils. Academic decisions are always workplace issues, because they affect the kinds of work—courses, programs, missions and strategic plans, rights and responsibilities—that university faculty are expected to carry out. Such matters fundamentally affect faculty workloads, choices, and academic freedom. Senior university administrators have no qualms about coordinating their interventions in bodies like Senates in order to push through restructuring initiatives. So why are faculty associations so apprehensive about collective efforts to influence academic decisions that so clearly and profoundly affect their members’ work? In fact, faculty associations are one of the only spaces that unite professors across departmental and faculty divides and help us develop a collective orientation as teachers and researchers. Most workplaces do not feature collegial self-governance or any form of workplace democracy. To ignore these spaces is to throw away a unique source of power that faculty possess.
Workplace mapping, and the clear picture of workplace power relations it reveals, is also the essential first step in building campus coalitions. Coalition work is now considered one of the most important strategies used by unions to amplify their power and reduce their isolation, particularly when in difficult fights with employers. Coalitions are even more important for public sector workers like university faculty, because community members—whether service users or taxpayers—always have a stake in our collective bargaining processes. Whether they side with workers or employers is a crucial factor in the success of the collective bargaining efforts of public sector workers. However, analysts of union coalition work caution that such efforts must be deep, long-term, and to the mutual benefit of all involved, rather than ad hoc and abandoned when one group satisfies their particular needs.
While it is not uncommon for faculty associations to share information with other campus unions, this is often done in an ad hoc manner and tends to follow the cycle of collective bargaining, receding when bargaining concludes. Many campus coalitions have proven difficult to sustain over the long term, not least because they involve working across real power imbalances between different groups of university workers. The university is replete with material and status hierarchies, which means that we don’t enter the room as equals, even when we seek to create forms of solidarity between us. Any coalition work within the university means faculty must approach such work with a clear sense of their relative power, and their responsibility to use it in ways that defend a much broader community of interest than has traditionally been typical or necessary.
In the face of the management strategies designed to play employee groups against one another, building alliances with other campus unions, associations, and student organizations over shared interests is more important than ever. These efforts must be rooted in learning about the way our experiences of the university, whether as workers or students, are being negatively affected by restructuring processes, making the links between those different experiences and identifying their common root causes.
For instance, students often encounter frustrating roadblocks trying to access university services and support, and take those frustrations out on front-line staff. For their part, overworked faculty and staff often use defensive measures to fend off student demands for service in order to cope with ever-increasing pressure for greater productivity. Faculty unions can lead in creating spaces where everyone can get beyond these adversarial symptoms to focus on their basic common causes. These deeper collective understandings must be backed by solidaristic actions on each other’s behalf, particularly in the context of cuts or difficult rounds of collective bargaining. And they must go beyond the formal leaders of campus organizations, creating opportunities for the membership of different groups to build connection and common cause with each other. Such alliances also have real tactical advantages, given that various groups are positioned differently in university processes and can take advantage of unique forms of power for collective benefit.
The need to act beyond our particular unions and universities is about more than being solidaristic. More than ever, university workplace issues cannot be resolved only at the bargaining table, because the true sources of these problems don’t always originate at the university level. While university administrations may take particular approaches to restructuring or labour relations, they are responding to broader political trends that are changing the nature of the university as an institution. As such, bargaining in the university sector (and in the public sector more generally) must be linked to political campaigns about the role of universities, led by coalitions of university workers and interested publics.
Even if they are able to strengthen their coalition- building capacities at their individual workplaces, faculty associations need to face up to a growing need to engage in broader and more meaningful political action. Faculty associations, through federations like OCUFA and CAUT, have largely restricted their political interventions to lobbying and non-partisan information sharing on a narrow range of postsecondary policy issues. However, there is utility in advocating for a broader political agenda as it can help reduce isolation from other groups, including students, parents, and community partners. After all, questions of fair taxation, income inequality, and the role of the public sector all shape what happens in and to universities.
More importantly, the character of the government fundamentally shapes what happens at the workplace, and what faculty associations win at the bargaining table can easily be taken away by the legislature. Indeed, in Ontario, the threat of a rabidly anti-union Progressive Conservative majority government led to a concerted effort by some segments of the labour movement to defeat Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak at all costs. Even police associations were drawn into the #StopHudak campaign. OCUFA’s decision to remain outside this effort, despite the threat a Hudak majority posed to the very future of labour unions, and its resistance to electoral activity more generally, is increasingly untenable given what is at stake. How faculty associations approach electoral politics (and political action more broadly) is an open question and is context specific. However, there is no doubt that faculty unions ignore active engagement in politics at their own peril.
Changing course does not require faculty associations to embrace a militant, industrial style of unionism, although many more of us are having to use the right to strike to defend our working conditions. Nor does it require us to relinquish our professional identity. If anything, our attachment to professionalism and our desire to protect the conditions that allow us to be fully effective teachers and researchers is one of the most powerful motivators for involvement in a proactive and expanded set of strategies.
What is at stake if faculty associations don’t change their strategies? At present, with the rate of unionization in postsecondary education still very high and faculty collective agreements still fairly strong, the stakes might seem low. But the power that comes from a strong union presence depends on what we do with these resources. As university administrations become more business-like and adversarial, as concession bargaining and divide-and-conquer strategies become more common, and as the quality of work life and education is increasingly threatened, faculty associations have both a need and a responsibility to change their organizations to effectively respond to these new challenges.