While U of T faculty mulls union certification, some profs are opposed

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
University of Toronto

I had to roll my eyes and stifle a snort when I read the reasons why some professors at the University of Toronto were balking at the idea of their faculty association becoming a certified union.

I didn't know that the U of T was one of the last in Canada where faculty don't belong to a certified trade union, as the Globe and Mail reports.

The current faculty association does bargain for its members under what's termed a memorandum of agreement.

"The MoA dates to the late 1970s and was developed explicitly as an alternative to union certification, though the latter is an option that remains open to faculty and librarians should they choose to exercise it," the association says on its website.

"The MoA features a limited scope collective bargaining process that deals with minimum salary, benefit and pension provisions together with workload."

The association does not have the right to strike under the current bargaining structure, the Globe noted.

[ Related: UNB and striking faculty reach tentative agreement ]

But if the current round of talks fail the association may move to certify itself as a union, which would add the job-action hammer to the tool box.

“It’s an option that’s always out there,” association president Scott Prudham told the Globe. “But the goal is to arrive at a negotiated way forward that’s an alternative to certification.”

But apparently some U of T profs are scandalized at the prospect of becoming union members.

What the Globe calls a "significant minority" apparently believe professionals earning high salaries don't belong in unions.

“The notion of unionization of employees who make six-figure salaries and have job security and protection of the sort enjoyed by professors is ridiculous on its face," Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote to U of T president Meric Gertler on Sunday, the Globe said.

"It is really an insult to all real labourers who fought for the right to unionize and collectively bargain."

Sigh. Where do I begin.

Perhaps Martin isn't a horny-handed coal miner or bolting wheels on cars at an auto plant. But he and his colleagues have as much right as anyone to the legacy of the sometimes bloody battles fought for workers' rights, rights which have come under siege in an era of globalization.

Highly-paid public servants (which in some sense university professors are) have belonged to unions for decades, as have other professionals such as nurses and journalists.

(I have to declare an interest here. Before I retired from The Canadian Press I was active in the Canadian Media Guild and even sat on the national executive for a while.)

And let's not forget organizations like the National Hockey League Players Association. Its members pull down seven- and eight-figure salaries and can negotiate individual contracts but its collective bargaining agreement provides a framework and minimum terms for all players.

Martin also ignores the fact his colleagues are already bargaining collectively, just not under Ontario Labour Code provisions governing unions.

He also argues union certification would scare off talented academics from coming to the U of T.

“I just don’t think really high-quality professors would want to work in a union environment,” Martin told the Globe.

I suspect other universities might disagree. The Globe noted certified unions represent more than 80 per cent of faculty members at Canada's research universities.

“Nobody who has ever certified has decided it was a mistake,” Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, told the Globe.

[ Related: University of Manitoba strike averted at last minute ]

There might be an element of snobbery to the opposition. Perhaps some opponents don't want to be lumped in with junior college instructors or, god forbid, high school teachers.

Some worry what impact a future strike would have on students, and that's a legitimate concern. According to this site maintained by the St. Francis Xavier University Students' Union, there have been strikes several at Canadian campuses in recent years that caused some disruption of students' classes. However, none lost their semesters.

My experience both within my union and covering labour disputes suggest the employer-employee relationship has to break down badly before anyone downs tools. The days of mass walkouts over trivial grievances are long gone. The economic stakes are too high.

In my three-plus decades at CP, we only came close to a strike once after management tabled a particularly tone-deaf contract proposal. An overwhelming strike vote put things back on course.

The U of T faculty association seems to be using the threat of union certification as a bargaining chip with the administration.

“Our leadership has not made [a] formal decision to pursue certification," Prudham told the Globe. "I’m just stating the obvious that the appetite for certification may well go up if the process falls apart, but we remain quite hopeful about this process.”

For its part, the university hopes to retain the current system. Vice-president Cheryl Regehr said it's allowed U of T to become a leading research university while protecting individual rights.

“Our goal in these discussions is to preserve what is great about the university and reform responsibly in areas where strengthening our collegiality is in the best interests of faculty,” she said in a statement, according to the Globe.