Bargaining is an intensive and complex process during the best of times, but what happened when the Brock University Faculty Association found itself bargaining a new collective agreement in the middle of a pandemic?

A challenging time for bargaining

When the Brock University Faculty Association entered its most recent round of bargaining in April 2020, the Ontario government had already declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of COVID-19 and Brock University had suspended face-to-face classes.

With the recent, and legally dubious, wage restraint legislation passed by the Ford government, we were already anticipating a tough round of bargaining; however, it quickly became clear that the pandemic would also have an impact on the university and collective bargaining process in ways none of us could have predicted.

When the Brock University administration signaled its intention to move ahead with bargaining in March—in spite of COVID-19—our union took stock of the situation. We considered the merits and drawbacks of delaying negotiations and ultimately decided to proceed by shifting gears in order to rise to the challenge of pandemic bargaining. This meant overcoming several challenges, including the logistics of bargaining remotely and of engaging the membership virtually.

The logistics of pandemic bargaining

First, we addressed the mechanics of bargaining. The parties agreed to bargain via videoconference and the union secured agreement that it would host the virtual meetings using Zoom—a platform not licensed by the university—to reduce the risk of privacy and confidentiality breaches. While the union used a virtual breakout room to caucus, the administration’s team used their own separate platform.

The parties also agreed to a system of electronic document exchange that included a process for tracking dates, times, and changes to documents shared and received. We typically exchanged proposals within ten minutes of convening or reconvening the videoconference and ran into very few technical problems during bargaining—the exception being a neighbourhood power outage that was easily resolved through a backup plan that allowed disconnected members to rejoin via teleconference.

Overall, the technology and accompanying protocols were not overly influential in determining bargaining processes, let alone outcomes. In fact, it is remarkable how familiar the bargaining process felt despite being conducted entirely over videoconference.

Physically distanced but virtually engaged

Our main challenge during bargaining was figuring out how to reach beyond the virtual bargaining table to ensure that members remained engaged. Early on, we recognized that we would need to rethink traditional member engagement strategies, given that faculty and professional librarians were working from home and practicing physical distancing. Here, our advanced planning paid off.

Our main challenge was figuring out how to reach beyond the virtual bargaining table to ensure that members remained engaged.

Our Contract Action Team, tasked with supporting the work of the Negotiating Team through member engagement strategies, had already mapped the workplace and established an informal internal communications network to encourage multidirectional member discussion and awareness. However, traditional in-person engagement and mobilization strategies would need to be adjusted given the realities of COVID-19.

Unlike administrations or university boards, who do not have to concern themselves with broad collaboration or consultation to achieve their bargaining mandates, academic staff associations must proactively engage and mobilize a broad cross-section of members if they hope to “hold the line” and resist concessions, let alone secure bargaining breakthroughs.

Rather than roll over our contract in the face of the pandemic, which might have been the easy thing to do, we redoubled our efforts to connect with members and resolved to implement an engagement strategy that would prevent the administration from using the pretext of COVID-19 to gut our collective agreement and give us a firm foundation to make gains for our members at the bargaining table.

While in-person conversations with members are always preferred, COVID-19 made that impossible, so we had to be creative and use technology in a way that would bolster member engagement.

  1. We developed video and text-based bargaining backgrounders for members to provide context for, and underscore the importance of, the union’s key bargaining priorities. Beginning in April, backgrounders were released on a weekly basis in anticipation of the first official bargaining session in mid-May.
  2. After each and every bargaining session, members received a detailed bargaining bulletin reviewing the proposals that had been discussed and the articles of the collective agreement that had been settled. The bulletins also served to frame the key issues for members and often included a call-to-action as an effort to keep members engaged.
  3. The union used flash polls to gauge member views on issues that popped up in the course of bargaining. We also actively solicited written feedback from members as part of every bargaining communication and made sure to respond to every query and comment.
  4. We held general membership meetings via video and teleconference where we provided members with updates and responded to questions.

Our approach was labour intensive, but necessary insofar as we understood that the administration would only take us seriously if it was clear that members were demonstrably aligned with the union’s key bargaining priorities.

The benefits of a unified membership

Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the union’s strategies for membership engagement were validated when a number of well-respected faculty members not typically aligned with the union praised the frequency and detailed content of the union’s bargaining updates and the quality of the union’s engagement strategies. Online membership meetings yielded record attendance, and the volume of member feedback received in response to the union’s bargaining updates was unprecedented. Members responded positively to the union’s overt efforts to include them in the bargaining process and, by all indication, gave them a greater stake in the outcome.

Members responded positively to the union’s overt efforts to include them in the bargaining process.

The level of engagement and the resolve of the membership to have its key priorities addressed emboldened the negotiating team to reject concessionary demands and insist on a settlement that members could be proud of.

The result was a groundbreaking contract that included important gains for all segments of the bargaining unit. The settlement included guaranteed minimum course releases to compensate for extraordinary levels of research output and unscheduled teaching (important gains during a pandemic), provisions for greater scheduling flexibility, language maintaining open searches for senior academic administrative positions, and significant additions designed to promote Indigenization and decolonization.

The union also managed to beat back the administration’s proposals to introduce a teaching-intensive stream and grant deans the right to schedule faculty to teach on Saturdays.

Maintaining contact with student leaders proved key to derailing the push for Saturday teaching. Because the union learned from students that administrators had made no effort to consult with their organizations about the impact or desirability of mandatory Saturday courses, we were able to exploit this disconnect in bargaining.

The revelation put the administration’s negotiating team on the defensive and provided an opportunity for the union to amplify faculty concerns which, in many ways, dovetailed with issues raised by the student leadership. At the virtual bargaining table, the union read out solicited feedback about the negative consequences of mandatory Saturday courses on students, programs, and faculty members themselves. Having members, more or less, speak for themselves not only provided strong evidence against mandatory Saturday teaching, but also demonstrated that the union and its members were strongly aligned.

Strategically positioned for success

Bargaining in the midst of a pandemic certainly had an impact on the priorities and strategies of both the union and university administration. Uncertainty and anxiety were prevalent as a result of COVID-19, but understanding that these emotions were not exclusive to the union’s membership was key. Senior administrators and university’s Board of Trustees were equally, if not more concerned about future enrolments, the institution’s image, and the risk of a labour dispute.

Given the wage restraint law passed by the Ford government and the additional financial anxieties Brock was facing as a result of COVID-19, the union made a strategic decision to pivot and prioritize non-monetary issues like scheduling, collegial governance, and Indigenization. We did this because we knew the administration could not credibly invoke the feared financial fallout from COVID-19 as a justification for refusing to engage with these key union priorities.

The tentative deal was reached after ten bargaining sessions, without the assistance or pressure of a third party, and ratified before the collective agreement was set to expire on June 30, 2020.

The bargaining context in each round and on each university campus is constantly changing. That means academic staff associations must also be open to changing their practices, structures, and strategies. Meeting the challenge of pandemic bargaining meant strategically fine-tuning our priorities and adjusting our membership communication and engagement strategies in ways that would bolster our bargaining position, even in the face of COVID-19.

Pandemic bargaining meant fine-tuning our priorities and adjusting our membership engagement strategies.

This round of bargaining had its own unique challenges, but the lessons we learned, the relationships we strengthened, and the advances we made will undoubtedly inform and improve our union’s engagement and mobilization strategies in the future.

Larry Savage is the Chief Negotiator for the Brock University Faculty Association and Professor in the Department of Labour Studies at Brock university.