Faculty associations are behaving more and more like unions, transforming labour relations at universities in Ontario.

Faculty associations in this part of the world are a little more than six decades old. Yet we know relatively little about where they came from and how they have evolved. As they become ever more important in the world of postsecondary education, it is useful to look back over the terrain that professors have mapped out as they created and recreated organizations to promote and defend their collective interests.

There is a phrase that often floats over faculty discussions about the latest outrage perpetrated by our senior administrations: we like to refer to “our traditional rights as faculty.” Some time ago, we seem to believe, there was a golden age when faculty collegiality ruled the university and administrators would never dream of acting the way they do now. This may be good political mythology or demonology, useful in our confrontations with our employers, but it is not good history.

To get closer to the way it used to be, we might actually want to talk about the “bad old days.” Until at least the 1960s, university governance was closely controlled by the presidents and the boards of governors. Below them hierarchy, paternalism, and patronage reigned. Senior faculty exercised a great deal of power over decision-making in their departments and faculties, and junior faculty dared not open their mouths. Hiring flowed through old-boys’ networks, as people recruited in the late 1960s and early 1970s will readily admit. Disruptive or controversial faculty could be privately punished, quietly squeezed out, or, on rare occasions, more publicly dismissed, as Harry Crowe was at United College in Winnipeg in 1958. Professors were overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Canadian, and male. The few women who found their way into academic jobs were paid less than their male counterparts and were marginalized. There were virtually no visible minorities. Assumption University in Windsor recruited the country’s first African-Canadian professor in 1959 when it hired biologist Howard McCurdy. This was not an environment conducive to negotiation between faculty members and administrations, let alone for professors and their associations to confront their administrators directly.

Issues were nonetheless percolating away. The most pressing was professors’ growing concern about their general social status, much like many other public-sector employees in the postwar period. In essence, their rallying cry was relative deprivation (although they probably never used the term). They believed that their salaries and benefits were falling behind comparable groups in Canadian society. The new Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), founded in 1951, helped to substantiate these concerns by disseminating information on faculty salaries and salaries in comparable professions across the country.

There was also growing interest in consolidating more faculty control over the professional standards of academia. As part of the intensification of professionalism within individual disciplines, professors set out slowly and cautiously to consolidate the right to control their own curriculum, to train the practitioners of their discipline in graduate programs, to make their own decisions about recruiting new faculty, and, probably most importantly, to have their right to tenure and the processes for granting it respected. These became new privileges and prerogatives, not age-old traditions. The Harry Crowe case, however, revealed how fragile these new rights were, and how much lingered on from an earlier era. Crowe, a history professor, was fired after the administration deemed him at odds with the supposed purpose of the college and disloyal to the administration, accusations based on improperly obtained private correspondence.

So, in the 1950s, haltingly, cautiously, professors began to form faculty associations that could defend their status in the university and the wider society—McMaster in 1951, Toronto in 1954, Western in 1955, Waterloo and Ottawa in 1957, Waterloo Lutheran (later Wilfrid Laurier) in 1958, and so on. These were anything but militant unions. They steered clear of the larger labour movement and never darkened the door of the Labour Relations Board to be legally certified as bargaining agents. Instead, they engaged in what some association leaders would later refer to as “collective supplication,” which meant informal practices of consultation with senior administrators, hoping that their request for higher salaries or better pensions would be received positively and passed on to the board of governors for ratification. The associations were generally controlled by senior faculty, and operated on the assumption of unity of interest between faculty and administration. They were nonetheless often ignored by paternalistic university presidents.

In the wake of the Harry Crowe case, there was a new interest in academic freedom. At the University of Toronto, for example, the faculty association’s pressure led to the creation of a committee in the mid-1960s to reform tenure and promotion procedures and appointment processes for chairs, deans, and directors. As the CAUT pursued more cases of discrimination in tenure and promotion procedures across the country, faculty associations turned new energy towards reforming university governance. There was much talk about having faculty on boards of governors, but that faced steady resistance from the businessmen who controlled the boards. In practice, reform meant strengthening the central institutions of collegiality, faculty councils, and senates.

Everything about this polite, relatively informal kind of relationship was disrupted after 1965 by five convergent forces of social, economic, and political change:

  • the reshaping of government policy toward postsecondary education that put more emphasis on closer integration with the labour market;
  • the consequent emergence of the mass university with thousands more students, many of whom began to demand a change in their status within the education system;
  • the secularization of older religiously-based institutions and the creation of several new universities without longstanding academic traditions;
  • the recruitment of hundreds of young, newly minted professors, many of them from the United States, at least some of them touched by the new youth rebellion that was exploding throughout the western world, and more than a few bringing experience with faculty unions in the US;
  • and finally, the concomitant growth of university bureaucracy to handle the transformed university in new ways that paid less respect to the fragile, relatively new processes of collegiality.

In this context, faculty began to feel buffeted and vulnerable, especially as the expansionary government plans of the 1960s contracted into the budget-cutting and soaring retail price inflation of the 1970s. After doing reasonably well in the boom years of growth, professors were once again worried about their economic status. Their associations’ annual treks of “collective supplication” to the university president were not paying off. Moreover, as postsecondary funding shrank, there were even threats of layoffs. That was what motivated my predecessors at York to create a faculty association in 1976. So, faculty associations became more aggressive in the 1970s in raising important issues about the terms of professorial employment, especially salaries and pensions.

Money wasn’t the only issue. Faculty associations were also concerned about the vulnerability of the professional practices that they had been struggling to nail down through the 1950s and 1960s. Administrative bureaucracies mushroomed along with the expansion of enrolments, and new managerial practices threatened to diminish professors’ collegial practices. As the former president of the Carleton University Academic Staff Association argued, “It is this feeling of powerlessness, the perception that Senate was being reduced to symbolic and often manipulated legitimizers, and the belief that professors must retain a real role in institutional decision making, which has convinced many professors to accept collective bargaining.” As Norman Rosenblood, president of the McMaster University Faculty Association in 1971-72, later recalled, “It appeared that the concept [of ‘collegiality’] was perpetually on the brink of disappearing or at least being ignored by the administration and that the faculty association was the only force that prevented its demise.”

In this context, a deeply divisive debate unfolded on many campuses in the 1970s over whether to turn faculty associations into full-fledged unions, legally certified to engage in formal collective bargaining. The proponents of this decisive shift argued that university administrations would only listen to the concerns of professors and librarians once they were compelled to negotiate in good faith. The opponents were adamant that unionization was alien to university life, that as professionals professors had nothing in common with the blue-collar workers who had traditionally formed the Canadian labour movement, nor with the many public-sector workers who were flooding into unions in the 1960s and 1970s such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Servants Employees Union.

In fairness, there was more than class snobbery involved in the resistance to unionization—there was a genuine concern that formal collective-bargaining processes would diminish the status of the professoriate to mere employees who had ceded management rights to the university administration. They clung to a belief that professors had a right and an obligation to be centrally involved in running the university, and should not have that status demeaned. In the words of the McMaster Faculty Association President in 1984, “the University is its faculty,” a sentiment expressed many times elsewhere as well. Perhaps some of them were aware that the US Supreme Court had ruled in a precedent-setting case in 1980 that the professors of Yeshiva University could not unionize because they were part of management. Their opponents, of course, saw this position as naiveté that failed to recognize the fragile status of professorial autonomy and the profound changes that were sweeping through the university system. Their status as professionals had always been vulnerable, and in practice, the terms of their employment had been at the whim of senior administrators for decades.

This was a debate that echoed through other groups of salaried professionals, notably teachers and nurses, who used their associations (in the case of the nurses, a brand new Ontario Nurses Association) to engage in much more militant actions. The nurses were barred by law from striking, but the teachers undertook some high profile work stoppages that shut down schools in whole cities in the 1970s. They nonetheless felt uncomfortable identifying themselves with the older image of the male blue-collar unionist, and for many years kept their distance from the rest of the labour movement.

Teachers and nurses made decisions to build organizations that included all their fellow workers across the province, but faculty associations remained creatures of individual campuses. Despite their affiliation with CAUT and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), they decided on the nature of their organizations locally (note that here, unlike in the US, teachers’ unions did not try to organize university faculty). As a result, the decisions about whether to make the important step to get certified as a union proceeded unevenly, and created a patchwork of certified and uncertified associations. After forming its first Collective Bargaining Committee in 1971, CAUT became an important resource for associations considering certification. OCUFA helped too. The first associations to get certified in Ontario were Carleton and Ottawa in 1975, then York in 1976. Within four years, Windsor, Laurentian, Lakehead, and Trent had taken the same step. Not surprisingly, these were some of the hardest hit in the funding crunch of the 1970s. By 1980, 30 per cent of Ontario faculty were represented by certified collective-bargaining agents. Even more shocking were the first faculty strikes, notably for six days at Windsor in 1982.

The option of becoming a certified union proved unpopular on several campuses, however, especially at the older universities. An alternative form of voluntary collective bargaining was slowly worked out at most of these places. At the University of Toronto a painfully slow process of bringing the senior administration to the table to sign a formal Memorandum of Agreement evolved over the 1970s until a regular set of practices, including grievance procedures and a mediator/arbitrator during negotiations, was finally in place by 1977. It took McMaster almost another decade to reach a similar point.

So, beginning in the 1970s, and more aggressively In the 1980s and 1990s, Ontario professors insisted that a host of issues, formerly dealt with informally and often arbitrarily, become subject to some kind of formal negotiating procedures, albeit diverse and specific to each campus. But, despite the involvement of many lefties in the unionization efforts, Ontario’s faculty had not made a great leap into more radical, class-based confrontation. They were instead trying to use their faculty associations to shore up their sense of professional entitlement—to good salaries and collegial self-governance. What was happening was a collision of proud academic traditions and growing fears of proletarianization, a result of changing relationships between faculty and the institutions within which they worked, but also with provincial governments, who set so many parameters for what happened in public universities. Unionization was usually triggered by some sense of crisis and a spirit of indignation.

Within these new frameworks, faculty members used the bargaining mechanisms that their associations, certified or not, had worked out to push important new issues, including better pension and benefit plans, but also, more notably, equity. For the first time, there were serious efforts to confront the systematic discrimination against female professors in hiring, salaries, and promotion. Sexual harassment, affirmative-action hiring, and employment equity found their way onto negotiating tables.

The bargaining agenda began to get more defensive in the 1990s as provincial governments began to turn down the screws. In 1993, Bob Rae’s NDP government imposed the third set of legislated wage controls on the public sector in twenty years. Even more menacing was the budget-slashing of Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government that began two years later. The process went deeper than the miserliness of particular politicians. The university was being
reconfigured within the larger ideological onslaught that has become known as neoliberalism.

For senior university administrators in Ontario, those pressures accelerated a trend towards a new managerialism that was more centralized and increasingly modelled on private- sector practices. Their vocabulary began to ripple with terms like “productivity,” “input and output,” “flexibility,” “accountability,” and, my personal favourite, “measurable deliverables.” All of these terms became a cover for closer scrutiny and micro-management from deans and vice-presidents; more demands for bureaucratic reporting; and more administrative interventions in hiring processes or tenure and promotion procedures. Processing ever larger numbers of students through bigger and bigger classes became a priority. Research won respect only if it brought in big research dollars. Links to the corporate sector multiplied in various kinds of funding partnerships. The administrative portion of university budgets mushroomed, as more middle and upper-level managers and their support staff, often with little or no work experience in universities, proliferated.

Administrators also began to restructure academic labour markets. As a result, faculty associations have found the turf over which they are bargaining constantly being more tightly circumscribed and diminished. More and more of the teaching is thus now done by faculty on part-time contracts, who are typically recent graduates of PhD programs, and who in many cases belong to different unions. Among the so-called full-time faculty, contractually limited appointments have also proliferated. Within the ranks of tenure-stream faculty, the longstanding assumption that teaching and research are closely related is being pulled apart by the appointment of a growing contingent of faculty to teaching-only streams. These individuals teach considerably more than their colleagues and are assessed only on their teaching (and perhaps service), but not their scholarly output. In fact, what has emerged is a much more complex hierarchy of academic teaching positions, far more of them insecure and precarious. Currently, there is more pressure to put courses online, where it appears they will be handled on a long-term basis by part-time or contract faculty. Casualization obviously cuts into good,
well-paying jobs, but it also threatens tenure and the academic freedom that it was intended to protect. Precariously employed instructors are more vulnerable and have little recourse to the processes that full-timers have to buttress their rights.

By the turn of the millennium, the work world of university professors was thus being profoundly shaken up. Three new trends in faculty responses to this new working environment had become evident. The first was the growing number of faculty associations that turned themselves into full-fledged unions. Jaws dropped when Queen’s got certified in 1996 and Western two years later. The voluntarism of the so-called Toronto model had rapidly lost its appeal. Across Canada, half the university faculty were unionized in 1998; ten years later the proportion was around 80 per cent (the public sector in general was around 70 per cent and the private sector at about 17 per cent). As university senates got weaker and thus became less reliable defenders of faculty rights, the collective agreements that faculty associations negotiated became the new bulwark of collegiality and academic freedom, with clauses guaranteeing fair tenure and promotion practices and sometimes specifying faculty rights in the process of appointing senior administrators.

Second, many faculty associations began acting more like traditional unions. Probably most dramatically, professors found themselves on picket lines much more often. Faculty strikes had been unheard of until the 1980s, but have since become more common. There would have been many more but for eleventh-hour settlements, as associations were preparing to throw up picket lines around campuses the next morning. Early in the 2000s, several Ontario faculty associations also took the opportunity to affiliate with NUCAUT, the arm of CAUT that joined the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), and thus association representatives began attending conventions of the CLC and Ontario Federation of Labour, as well as monthly meetings of their local labour councils. A different kind of collective identity began to emerge from all these developments—a sense of connectedness as academic employees, but a distinct separation and distance from and distrust of administrators, in marked contrast with the pre-1970s years.

That new consciousness connected with a third development. Elsewhere on Ontario university campuses, other groups of workers were unionizing and occasionally striking: secretaries, groundskeepers, plumbers, library technicians, and, probably most emphatically, teaching assistants—the future faculty members. Faculty associations now had to situate their own work and their agendas within this larger framework of academic collective bargaining. There were agonizing debates about honouring the picket lines of other unions versus continuing to meet students. Many faculty members nonetheless joined the lines of other workers on their campuses. At York in 2000-01, most professors refused to cross the picket lines of CUPE 3903, the union representing teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty, even though the strike lasted nearly three months. Faculty associations are now far more likely to express solidarity with workers in other occupational groups than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Together, universities have become among the most unionized workplaces in Canada. This reality has exposed campus unions to both new opportunities and a new vulnerability. The collapse of so much of the country’s industrial sector, and the declining membership of the unions in that sector, has shifted the composition of the Canadian labour movement. Public-sector workers now make up a majority of union members in Canada, and, for the first time ever, women form a slight majority. The problem is that public discourse in a neoliberal Canada is now turning on the alleged “fat cats” of the unionized public sector, with salaries, benefit packages, and pension plans far better than the large numbers of unorganized workers in the private sector.

In closing, let me play labour historian. In so many ways, the unionization of the professoriate was akin to the response of 19th and early-20th century craft workers whose manual skills appeared to be threatened by the first wave of capitalist industrialization. The comparison suggests two lessons that emerge from the distinct but still similar histories of professors and craft workers. When machinists looked around at the giant factories of the early 20th century, they saw a second industrial revolution under way—scientific management, assembly lines, and so on—and found their established workplace practices under attack. In that context, they tried to defend what skill they still exercised and spoke eloquently about the value of their craftsmanship. They also reached out to organize the less skilled workers working alongside them known as specialists or handymen and brought them into their union. They also saw that there was a unity of interest in the metal-working factories that required cooperation with the moulders, patternmakers, blacksmiths, stationary engineers, and so on, and created Metal Trades Councils to bring them all together in an organizational federation. The famous Winnipeg General Strike started because Winnipeg metal shop owners refused to deal with the local Metal Trades Council as the bargaining agent for all metal workers. Today, unity across occupational groups within our academic workplaces will also be just as important. We should be sitting at common bargaining tables with other unions on our campuses as often as possible, on a wide range of issues.

Secondly, machinists also recognized that there were government policies that needed to change, and worked within the broader labour movement and with other allies on campaigns for mothers’ allowances, minimum wages, and the eight-hour work day. Faculty associations today have to be prepared to participate actively in the local, provincial, and national labour movements to support campaigns for social justice and to build alliances for future battles.

Our challenge then is to find a way to hold onto what we value in academic freedom and collegiality without retreating into an elitist defence of our own narrowly circumscribed interests. There is too much at stake, and the destructive forces of neoliberalism are all around us. From what I’ve seen in recent years in my own association and in meetings with people from other institutions, there are a lot of academic workers out there who are already committed to this task, and the battles are already raging around us. AM

Craig Heron is Professor of History at York University.

Author’s Note: In preparing this paper, I have leaned in particular on William H. Nelson, The Search for Faculty Power: The History of the University of Toronto Faculty Association, 1942-1992 (Toronto: University of Toronto Faculty Association and Canadian Scholars’ Press 1993); B.W. Jackson, MUFA’s First 50 Years: The Presidents Reminisce (Hamilton: McMaster University Faculty Association 2001); Michael Horn, Academic Freedom in Canada: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1999); Paul Axelrod, Scholars and Dollars: Politics, Economics, and the Universities of Ontario, 1945-1980 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 1982); Judith Wagner DeCew, Unionization and the Academy: Visions and Realities (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers 2003).