What is “certification” and how is it different from SFUFA’s current status?
Certification is the most common process by which an organization is recognized as a union under the BC Labour Relations Code. Legal recognition can also occur through what is called “voluntary recognition”, but as that process is limited to instances in which an employer actively chooses to support recognition under the Code, it only arises in very particular circumstances.
SFUFA currently is recognized as a bargaining agent by SFU, and has rights to bargain salaries and economic benefits, and to negotiate some other matters of policy, according to our Framework Agreement. The basic legal difference is that our current status is a grant of the University itself, which has agreed to bargain certain matters with faculty and librarians; certification means that those rights are granted by the Labour Board and recognized in law. Rather than a bargaining relationship in which SFU agrees to allow us to negotiate certain items, our bargaining relationship would be protected by law, and would extend to any employment matter that we would choose to negotiate.
How exactly would our bargaining rights be changed if we were certified?
Our current bargaining rights are outlined in our Framework Agreement. Our rights to negotiate fall into a few different categories.
1) Salaries and economic benefits – we have the right to collective bargaining on monetary issues, and we have the right to take a bargaining impasse to a third party arbitrator for a final selection arbitration process. That is, if we and the University cannot agree on salaries and economic benefits, a neutral party may hear both sides, and select one or other position. That decision is binding.
2) Terms and conditions of employment – this includes a range of matters from workload to promotion and tenure procedures which are recognized as matters of agreement that we may ask to negotiate. The University may not alter these policies unilaterally, but the Association has no right of mediation or arbitration if agreement cannot be reached. That is, we have no ability to take these matters forward should we be unable to reach agreement with the University.
3) Other matters that may be negotiated only with the express permission of the University – this category involves other policies that might affect terms and conditions of employment, such as matters of governance. Here we may always ask that something be discussed, but there is no obligation on the University to negotiate with us, and we have no recourse. Over these matters, the University has the ability to make changes unilaterally, and does not need our agreement.
Certification under the law recognizes the Association and the University as equals in the bargaining relationship. That is, neither party is able to dictate what can or cannot be negotiated, and any item that is brought to the negotiating table may be taken forward to mediation or arbitration according to the agreed procedures for dispute resolution (excepting a few matters prohibited by the Labour Code itself or contrary to law). That does not mean the University cannot make its own decisions; it can, and would continue to do so, and generally would retain the right to establish policy on any matter not covered by the collective agreement. The difference is not, then, that all matters would necessarily be included in a collective agreement, but that we would have the ability to attempt to negotiate without restrictions imposed by the University.
What would happen to SFUFA after certification?
Certification would give SFUFA a different legal status under the law, widening the scope of bargaining and providing for more avenues to resolve disputes that might arise. It would not affect the organization in any other substantial way.
SFUFA would continue to exist as it does, and we would not become a part of any big union. How the organization conducts meetings, elects its Executive and manages daily affairs – none of this would change. SFUFA is governed by a Constitution and Bylaws, and these remain in effect whether we are certified or not. Certification is about legal status, bargaining rights and dispute resolution mechanisms; it is not about the internal management of the organization.
Would our dues go up if we became certified?
Dues are always set by members, and control over dues rates will always remain in the hands of members. UBC Faculty Association, which is unionized, has always kept its dues either the same as or lower than ours. The certification process does not mean dues go up.
What would be the impact on individual rights?
Individual rights are always limited by employment policies, whether negotiated or imposed by the employer. Certification does not hand all member rights over to the union, but only provides a new framework for negotiations to take place, and allows us to negotiate matters which are currently at the sole discretion of the University.
The rights of members are impacted in one respect, however: under the Labour Code, individual members would have a legislative right to be fairly represented by the Association, and access to a binding complaint procedure if the Association failed to adequately represent them. SFUFA does currently endeavour to act according to that standard, but the certification process would protect individual members by law, and provide a means to take complaints about SFUFA before a third party.
Do all faculty members and librarians have to be members of a unionized SFUFA?
Automatic and required membership in SFUFA is not a product of certification, but it does currently exist and would be expected to continue. This is not something that arises from certification or from the Labour Relations Code, but does arise from the agreement in place between SFUFA and SFU.
The Labour Code ensures that no one is required to choose to join a union – i.e. when the question of certification is raised, all those who would be covered by the bargaining arrangement have a right to vote either yes or no. However, the law also allows – allows, but does not mandate – membership in the union to be a condition of employment, and therefore mandatory to all who accept employment in a given workplace. This is already the case at SFU. When people join the university as faculty members or librarians, they automatically become members of SFUFA, and must remain members in order to be employed.
There is one exception to this, and that is addressed in both our current agreement and in the Labour Code. There are certain religions that do not allow members to join collective organizations such as unions or professional associations. The right to religious freedom allows these individuals to opt out of union membership. They must continue to pay the same amount of deduction as a regular dues rate, but this money can be re-directed to a charity. This provision does not mean that these individuals are not bound by the collective agreement, but simply that they are, as religious objectors, released from mandatory membership in the organization – their dues equivalent goes elsewhere, and they give up the right to vote at general meetings or participate in elections. The Labour Board has the authority to determine whether an objection to membership on these grounds is or is not valid.
It is important to note the distinction between a member of the bargaining unit and a member of the union. Certification governs membership in the bargaining unit. All affected employees are under law members of the bargaining unit, whether or not they are also members of the union. That is, they are bound by the terms of the collective agreement, bargaining is done on their behalf by the organization, and the organization has a duty to fairly represent them in the case of an employment dispute. Membership in the union or association is what allows people to participate in the organization’s decision making. In the vast majority of workplaces – SFU included – the two things overlap for all except those who belong to particular religious organizations that explicitly preclude union or association membership.
The short answer, then, is that certification does not have an impact on whether one must be a member of SFUFA, or the specific allowable reason to opt-out. This arises from the agreement in place between the bargaining agent and the employer.
Would certification eliminate or undermine collegial governance?
No. Certification is a process to expand the rights of faculty to bargain collectively, and in this it enhances the collegial process at the highest levels of governance. At more local levels – i.e. Departments and Faculties – the basic structures of collegial decision making would be unaffected unless we chose to bargain more robust protections for collegiality. Indeed, one of the central reasons for faculty unionization at other institutions has been to protect the collegial system. Queens, Western, Memorial, UBC, to name only a few – these are all unionized faculty associations. And all continue to operate according to standard principles of collegial governance.
What would be the impact on salaries? Market differentials? Rentention awards?
Many hear ‘union’ and think of strict salary scales, with no recognition of merit, and no ability to differentiate for market conditions. But certification by no means implies an eradication of the various components of the salary system. Indeed, salary differentials are an almost universal feature of Canadian universities, unionized or not; our closest neighbour, UBC, has neither starting salaries nor ceilings, a healthy system of merit steps, provision for retention awards, and no scale at all.
As with everything else, it is the culture of the institution, the needs of various constituencies, and the votes of the members that determine what is put on the negotiating table. SFUFA has no interest whatsoever in driving down the salaries of members. Our practice in bargaining has been consistent – to note that market differentials and retention awards are so common a feature as to make our salary scale largely insignificant in its current form and in need of review. We have never sought to reduce the salaries of those who are doing well, but to see scales brought to a level at which Departments can effectively hire and members can continue to progress based on continued meritorious performance, and to ensure that the processes by which awards are made and/ or removed are fair and transparent.
If we were certified, could we be forced to go on strike?
No. Most unions have the right to strike, and certification gives any organization the option to maintain the right to strike, unless restricted by law. However, no union can ever strike without a vote of its members, and as a general rule no union would ever attempt a strike unless that vote were overwhelmingly supportive.
But even further, there is no reason why a union cannot opt to negotiate binding arbitration as its method of dispute resolution, waiving its right to strike legally. This is the case at UBC, for example, where the Faculty Association and the University have agreed to waive the rights to strike and lockout, respectively, and to resolve any bargaining impasse through binding arbitration.
Short answer, then: certification is one question; the decision to retain the right to strike or to opt for an alternate dispute resolution system. Both are questions that are wholly in the hands of members, and a decision in favour of one does not automatically mean a decision in favour of the other.
If we were certified, could we be forced to honour picket lines of other unions?
No. The decision to cross or not to cross a picket line is a matter of individual conscience, and no bargaining unit, unionized or not, has any authority under the law to compel an individual to decide one way or other. Some faculty associations, as a matter of solidarity, encourage members to respect the picket lines of unions. Some do not. And the difference has not to do with the status of the faculty association but with its culture. SFUFA has always maintained that decisions regarding pickets rest solely with individuals, and that our role is simply to inform members of rights on both sides, and assist members if they face any difficulty exercising those rights. This would not change as a result of certification.
Unions may be appropriate in some sectors, such as manufacturing; but are they not incompatible with faculty work?
Faculty and academic librarians work more autonomously than most other people, with more varied hours, more flexible schedules, more direct control over what they do. Faculty make decisions largely through collegial processes that are often highly localized rather than centralized. But certification does not do anything to change this. In fact, university faculty and librarians in Canada have one of the highest rates of unionization of any group – a faculty member is more likely to be unionized than a factory worker, a sales clerk, a call centre employee. In fact, outside of Alberta, where certification is prohibited by law and faculty associations bargain under a specific code, almost all Canadian universities have unionized faculty associations.
BC, historically, has been an exception to the trend towards certification. 15 years ago, all of BC’s public universities had non-unionized associations operating under Framework Agreements such as ours. UBC was first to unionize, in 1999. Then Royal Roads, several years ago. At this time, UVic faculty have signed cards in a campaign to certify their association and are preparing for a formal vote. And our colleagues at UNBC appear poised to follow suit in the near future. Presuming those other drives are successful – and all evidence suggests they will be – we at SFU would be the only faculty association in BC, and among a small handful nationally, who remain unrecognized under the law, with bargaining rights restricted by our employer.
What does the process of certification look like?
The process of certification has a number of steps, each one designed to ensure that no organization is certified unless its members expressly make that choice.
1) Members will be asked if they wish to sign a card in favour of a certification vote. Under the Labour Relations Code, the card must state that the signer wishes to be a member of the SFU Faculty Association, understanding that the Association intends to seek certification. This wording is a matter of law, and is required for a card to be valid.
2) If and only if at least 45% of members sign such cards may SFUFA apply to the Labour Relations Board for certification. All cards must be signed within a 90 day period; anything outside of that period will be deemed invalid.
3) The LRB would then appoint an officer to examine the cards and determine whether the bargaining unit is appropriate and the threshold for a vote has been met. If so, a hearing would likely be called to discuss the application with balloting to follow.
4) The certification vote would be conducted by secret ballot, under the authority of the LRB. The process and timeline would be set by the Board rather than by SFUFA, though we might make specific requests, i.e. that balloting take place at all campuses, and that it extend over more than one day. Ultimately, though, it is the LRB that will decide.
5) If the majority of members participating in the ballot vote in favour of certification, the Board would recognize SFUFA as a union under the law and we and the University would prepare to bargain a first legally-recognized collective agreement.
6) After certification, we and the University would be directed to begin negotiations for a first collective agreement. For 4 months, all terms and conditions of employment would be frozen – that is, no changes could be made to policies and procedures affecting your working life. In that four month period, the two parties would sit down and start negotiating about what to include in that collective agreement.
Things are not all bad at SFU. Why certify if the relationship between SFUFA and the administration is a relatively good one?
SFUFA and the SFU Administration have a good relationship. We meet regularly, we consult on a wide range of issues, and we value respect, consideration and fairness in our dealings. As a general rule, we are able to resolve disputes informally and in ways that are acceptable to both parties. These are traits we value in our relationship with the administration, and we are not interested in undermining them.
But a generally positive relationship is no reason not to certify; in fact, we believe it is the best possible context in which to certify, as both parties can allow the will of members to be tested in an open and transparent way without undue pressure, and the establishment of a first collective agreement and new bargaining relationship – a relationship of equals under the law – can take place in an atmosphere of general trust and goodwill. If unionization is coming to universities across the province, should we not consider making that transition as smooth and easy as possible, rather than waiting for either a less-collegial administration or a particularly tense dispute?
There is a good deal of research about the value unionization can present, even to employers, and about ways that unions and managers can work collaboratively to achieve the best possible workplace and identify shared goals. We are committed to that approach, and while engaging in this process take every opportunity to signal to SFU that we remain interested in working together, cooperatively, wherever we can.
So let’s get to the point. Would anything really improve as a result of certification?
Certification does not solve problems. Certification does not change conditions, or increase salaries, or do anything specific. Certification does two things:
1) it expands the scope of bargaining, giving the Association the legal right to try to negotiate terms beyond just salaries and economic benefits, and the ability to access mediation services and/ or dispute resolution mechanisms if those are required.
2) It changes the bargaining relationship from one of superior/ inferior under the law – rights granted to us at the discretion of the university – to one of equals under the law, with rights granted by and protected by legislation.
Certification, then, is not the solution to any specific problem. But it provides a more flexible framework, a larger toolkit, and a solid legal foundation from which problems can be identified, discussed, and resolved through negotiation.
The bottom line is that collegiality, positive relationships, cooperation – all these rely on respect. And respect is something that can only really exist among equals. Despite our Framework Agreement, we are not equals with the administration in the current bargaining relationship.
Deans and Vice Presidents and the President are and always will be the superiors of faculty in the employment relationship; the University administration has the right to manage, and the right to set direction. But under the Labour Code, when two parties meet for negotiations or for dispute resolution they meet as equals under the law. And that is a status we do not currently have.
Respect. Cooperation. Collegial governance. These are values we all share. But their implementation in real terms is missing something fundamental – the equality of the parties. In putting certification on the table, we are simply seeking a bargaining relationship in which we are equal partners, afforded the same rights enjoyed by faculty virtually everywhere else.