I’m pleased to welcome you to the 2022 UPEIFA Annual General Meeting (AGM). It has certainly been an eventful year and the next year shows no signs of disappointing. So with that let’s get going.
I’d like to begin by highlighting the important work of FA members who has volunteered their time to keep our Association afloat and on track. As I intend to discuss in the rest of my remarks, our Association is nothing more and nothing less than our collective contributions. Whether you’re serving on standing or ad hoc committees, adjudicating awards, or supporting your colleagues through a grievance process, your work makes it possible to defend and advance our working conditions. For that, I would like to congratulate you for playing these important roles in this collective project.
I’d also like to draw attention to the outstanding folks who serve of the UPEIFA Executive Committee – Margot Rejskind, Larry Hale, Andrea Bourque, Fred Kibenge, Simon Lloyd, and Sean Weibe. Particularly in the lead-up to negotiations, we have spent considerable time together discussing strategy and initiating a range of processes in defense of our Collective Agreement. These are people who are passionate about our working conditions and committed to improving the lives of everyone who lives, works, and study on our campus. I feel fortunate to be able to count them among my friends.
I’d also like to single out the work of our Office Manger Ashley Hansen. She does an incredible job of keeping us on track and ensuring that we have all the resources we need to advance your collective interests.
While I have been a UPEI employee for the last 16 years, I must admit that I’ve only been actively involved in the Faculty Association for the last 6. During that time, I’ve had an opportunity to experience our working conditions both as an uninvolved beneficiary of our collective agreement as well as someone who has played a variety of roles from grievance officer and member-at-large to Vice-President and my current position. Through those experiences, I’ve come to understand both the challenges and rewards of being more involved – and encouraging our colleagues to become more involved – in our Association.
What I’ve come to appreciate is that the principle obstacle to greater participation in our Association is not so much that our colleagues fail to understand the importance of a vibrant academic association but that under the terms of our collective agreement and in the context of our current administration, there is precious little time to devote to such an endeavour. Just think of it: many of you are being asked in the context of a global health care crisis to provide a word-class education to your students, maintain a productive research program, fulfill service requirements, and have some semblance of a life outside this institution. For others, the reality of insecure employment makes it necessary for you to cobble together a collection of individual or short-term contracts without job security and with little or no benefits. In this context, who has extra time and why would they choose to waste such a valuable commodity on their academic staff association?
It’s difficult to argue with this until we appreciate the circularity of the problem itself. Why don’t many of us have enough time to be engaged in our Association? Because our working conditions leave us with little time for anything else. Why do our working conditions leave us with little time for anything else? Because we haven’t been engaged in our Association? The circularity of the problem makes it clear that any improvement to our working conditions must begin with an interrogation of the way we relate to one another in a unionized context.
There are a number of models for how academic staff associations can function. On the service model, members pay dues to a faculty association whose primary purpose under the Labour Act is to serve as their sole and exclusive bargaining agent. Under this model, most members of academic staff associations come to view the association as a third-party to be called upon if they have specific workplace issues. While there are certainly a number of important and dedicated people devoted to the cause of the Association (and if you are attending this meeting, there is a good chance you are one of those people), they make up a small fraction of the entire membership. For the rest, in the absence of any pressing individual issues, members take little interest and have minimal involvement in the association.
It is important to make clear that you are not alone. Exacerbated by a pandemic that shows little signs of abating, academic staff associations across the country are struggling to improve working conditions for colleagues who are often overworked, burned out, and in a poor position to devote any significant energy towards their associations. Yet increasingly, associations across the country have been exploring another model – what is sometimes referred to as an organizing model for academic associations:
Under the organizing model, academic staff associations are viewed not as external entities providing a service but rather as the sum total of the membership itself. Within this model, the aim is to empower academic staff to improve their working conditions through direct collective action both inside and outside of bargaining.
Rather than placing inordinate emphasis on mollifying an Employer in the hope that this can give the Association a seat at the table, the organizing model harnesses the power of the membership and the local community to realign the employment relationship itself. Through collective action, public relations campaigns, and coordination with other campus unions, it becomes clear that academic staff and administration stand on equal footing and that the trajectory of our institution depends not only on our students but also on the working conditions of the academic staff that are the bedrock of this institution.
So within an organizing model, what does collective action look like?
There are of course going to be different levels of collective action. For some, changing your Zoom background or profile pick, placing a FA sticker or poster on your door, or attending an FA event is going to be an important first step. And for those of us attending this meeting, I hope you will do whatever you can to help our colleagues take these first steps.
But there are other levels of involvement as well – some in fact that have already led to important changes across campus. For example, over the last year, we’ve solicited your thoughts on a range of issues from health and safety measures to collective bargaining priorities. Your collective voice has made it possible to secure if not improve our working conditions in what has proven to be an exceptionally challenging context.
Health & Safety
On the health and safety front, you may recall that just prior to the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester, our employer notified the campus community that nearly every COVID-19 mitigation measure would be lifted. Not long after we received this notification, the Faculty Association distributed a survey requesting your input on the precautions you felt were most appropriate for ensuring all students, faculty, and staff have a healthy and safe environment. We cannot lose sight of the fact that in the face of employer resistance and in the context of a public relations campaign, your collective voice pressured a recalcitrant employer to adopt (and subsequently celebrate) a formal mandatory vaccine mandate and masking requirement.
Moreover, in the face of repeated assurances from our employer that the campus community should have no concerns about campus indoor air quality, you collectively pushed for further measures and increased clarity around a robust COVID-19 ventilation strategy. Your perseverance lead to a professional evaluation that uncovered significant concerns which has resulted in commitments from our Employer to make significant improvements to campus ventilation systems – improvements that will benefit the entire campus community.
In the midst of these improvements, you have also made another significant gain. You have made it clear that health and safety decisions are collective decisions involving the entire campus community. Regardless of what happens going forward, you have secured your role in these important decisions.
Collegial (Shared) Governance
While ensuring that we have a larger role to play in health and safety decisions is certainly important, we must recognize it as but one part of a larger goal of ensuring that academic staff play a central role in shaping the trajectory of our institution. From speaking to you, it has become clear that you feel increasingly sidelined from a range of decision that impact our campus and by extension the entire community.
To that end, over the last year we have tried to make significant inroads into protecting and improving collegial governance at our institution. Much of this work has involved doing our part to facilitate your participation in various decision making processes. I have no doubt that together, academic labour unions and robust collegial governing bodies can act as bulwarks against the centralization of authority in an employer or administration that might otherwise place fiscal and managerial priorities ahead of our working conditions and academic values.
This shared commitment to the decentralization of authority and the priority of academic (rather than managerial) values creates a fruitful environment for academic staff to work collaboratively to defend academic freedom, address excessive workloads, and ensure that we have the resources we need to carry out our academic function. Put simply, academic labour unions and collegial governing bodies function most effectively when they grasp the undeniable connection between our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions.
Working with a number of your elected representatives on UPEI Senate, we’ve pushed for greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the operation of UPEI Senate. We’ve ensured that UPEI academic staff are aware of upcoming meetings, in a position to engage with their elected representatives, and provided the means to attend these meetings. I have no doubt that your presence at these meetings has made a significant contribution towards improving administrative transparency and accountability. On that note, UPEI Senate is meeting at 3:00p today. I encourage you to use the link that was distributed to the campus community to join us for this important meeting.
So far, what I’ve described is what you’ve been able to accomplish collectively outside of bargaining and often with little more involvement than completing surveys and attending meetings. While these are no doubt important achievements, they pale in comparison to what we can achieve in the context of negotiations. As of the end of March, both of our bargaining units have formally entered negotiations with our employer to secure a new collective agreement. While your Chief Negotiator will provide you with an update in just a moment, I cannot overemphasize the power of this moment and the opportunity you have in front of you. Under our collective agreement, the term and conditions of our employment are set for the length of our agreement. Outside of grievance and arbitration – which I will update you on in a moment – neither party is entitled to challenge the terms of our agreement for the duration of our agreement. As of July 1st, those terms will have expired and new terms will need to be negotiated. In this context, our solidarity and your support have never been more vital.
In addition, this year nearly every campus union – from UPEI support staff and security to maintenance and facilities worker – will be going through a similar bargaining process. While we are in constant communication with other campus union representatives, now more than ever it is important for you to share your words of support and solidarity with administrative assistants, research staff, and custodial staff. More than ever, we share with all campus workers the struggle to improve our working conditions.
In preparation for negotiations, we have gone to unprecedented lengths to understand your concerns and identify your priorities. The bargaining mandate that you unanimously approved at our last meeting has been integral in drafting collective agreement language to make your priorities a reality. While we believe our proposals are fair and reasonable, it is important to stress that we cannot place all of our faith in our Employer’s ability or interest in being swayed by the reasonableness of our positions. In collective bargaining, our ability to negotiate improvements in our working conditions rests entirely on your collective support and the ability of your bargaining team to operate in the context of a credible threat of job action.
So what can you do?
First and foremost, make it clear whenever possible that you support your collective bargaining team. Whether it be a button on you shirt, a poster on your door, or a Zoom background on you call, there is nothing that enables your bargaining team to advance your collective interests more than our Employer recognizing that the people across the table have the unwavering support of YOU – the academic staff that are the driving force behind this institution. At the end of the day, our greatest strength in negotiations is our solidarity with our colleagues, with all campus workers, and with the entire labour movement.
In conclusion, I imagine that when most of us decided to pursue an advanced degree in our respective fields, we did so out of our love for a particular area of inquiry, our dedication to teaching, or simply because we were inspired by someone who was in a position similar to the one that many of us now occupy. But if we remain dedicated to our craft, to our colleagues, and to our students, we cannot lose sight of the fact that such dedication is of little consequence if we fail to secure the material conditions for the work that we do. This is what we mean when we say that “our working conditions are our students learning conditions.”
- If we hope to inspire our students, then we cannot miss an opportunity for them to learn from our example.
- If we hope to support our communities, then we cannot be afraid to speak truth to power.
- And if we hope to salvage the reputation of OUR University, then we cannot let this moment pass us by.
Within an organizing model, this struggle cannot be OURS unless it is YOURS as well. The last few years have taught us the importance of our shared responsibility to protect our communities. We must appreciate this lesson, seize this moment, and work together to build a University that we can once again be proud of. Let’s get to work.
by Michael Arfken (UPEI Faculty Association President)