Message from Neil Abramson re: Certification – Oct. 13

The SFUFA executive committee has passed a resolution calling for SFUFA to spend the next 12 months continuing our information program on unionization, and ultimately to pursue certification under the Labour Code.  This resolution will be presented to the membership at our Fall General Meeting in early November.  If it passes, we will continue to invite members to information sessions in the form of coffee clatches, pub events, and lunches until members are better informed of the choices.  However, it would be our intention to actively pursue certification.  Eventually, there would be a campaign to collect the signatures of at least 45% of SFUFA members, leading to a vote on certification.

I started this information process about unionization thinking that if the administration was willing to cooperate with SFUFA, unionization might not be necessary at all.  You will remember that at our recent salary arbitration, we at SFU were awarded 2.0% and 1.95% over two years while UBC faculty were awarded 2.5% in both years.  We believed that the difference was that SFUFA was required to use “final offer arbitration” while UBCFA was allowed to use “interest arbitration.”  When UBCFA had unionized, they had traded their right to strike for interest arbitration.  Some of us, myself included, thought that if our administration was willing to just give us interest arbitration, there might not be a need to unionize because we would already have the same means as UBCFA.

I put this view to senior SFU administrators and they encouraged SFUFA to make a formal request for interest arbitration, which we did immediately.  On last Wednesday, we were informed that the administration had denied SFUFA interest arbitration.  Their reason was that they were satisfied with things as they now stand.  They also refused to provide their answer in writing, correctly fearing I would cc it to all SFUFA members.

So, I am left to think that the only way we can achieve interest arbitration is to organize ourselves and unionize.  Then we can consider whether to give up the right to strike for guaranteed interest arbitration, like UBC, and for the university to address other issues like the hard salary caps that keep our salaries relatively low.

UBC doesn’t have these caps so all their faculty are eligible for step and/ or merit increases each year.  We estimate that while we are receiving our 2.0% and 1.95% over this 2 year period, UBC faculty will on average receive 5% each year.  That’s how their salaries got to be on average 30% higher than ours.  It wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

Personally, I would be pleased to give up the right to strike if we did unionize – if we received a fair return.  I know that many of you, my colleagues, abhor the idea of being asked to strike, and would be pleased to accept the fair decision of a neutral arbitrator who was entitled to split the difference between union and management wage proposals, as in interest arbitration.  But what to do about the right to strike is a separate question, one we would address after the decision to certify.  The critical point is that it will be a decision of the members, and if we did keep the right to strike, no strike could ever take place without a very strong majority vote.

The SFUFA executive did not vote to support union certification just because the administration refused us interest arbitration.  I had promised that at this week’s lunch at the DAC, I would speak on the pros and cons of unionization.  That meant I had to do a bit of research.  I discovered there were additional pro points I hadn’t considered. I am attaching my speaking notes for you to see.

It turns out that SFUFA cannot negotiate anything related to the governance of the university without agreement by the administration.  This is because our right to represent you is granted to us by SFU (and they can take it away and have so threatened in the past).  That means SFU decides what we can and cannot negotiate, and what rights we have to mediation or arbitration if we don’t reach agreement.  We have the right to arbitration in only one case – salary and economic benefits.  Working conditions, other employment policies, governance – in all other matters our bargaining rights are either limited or completely non-existent.

Now if SFUFA were a union, our right to bargain would be guaranteed by the Labour Relations Board, and we could negotiate on any issue we chose to bring forward.  And if we believed the university’s position was unreasonable, we would have access to the assistance of a mediator to help us keep negotiations moving.

Let me give you an example of where this kind of assistance might be very important in the near future.  The university and SFUFA have recently agreed to establish a new job classification – teaching professor.  A lecturer who had been promoted to senior lecturer may now be further promoted to teaching professor.  The latter is the teaching equivalent to the research full professor and will be paid on the same scale.  The teaching professor would only teach 4 classes a year (versus 6-8 for most lecturers and senior lecturers), and do research on teaching protocol.

There is a catch, however, that may prevent most teaching faculty – over 15% of SFUFA members  – from ever achieving the teaching professor rank.  Lecturers and senior lecturers are evaluated solely on their performance as teachers.  They are not required to do original research, nor do they have time with their often 8 courses/year (3+3+2) schedules.  However, a successful candidate for teaching professor must have a national or international reputation based on his/her research on teaching protocol, as well as excellent teaching, and service.  And note the requirement that the research be on teaching eliminates the academic freedom to do research on subjects of one’s own choice.  Most of our senior lecturers have not had the time, nor were they expected to do such research.  Now they will have to demonstrate that they have done so anyway.

SFUFA was at the negotiating table to introduce this rank.  And we made it clear we wanted it to be a meaningful rank, that our members had a reasonable chance of attaining.  We fell far short of that on this first pass, and will be taking it back to the table in the next round.  But because of the restrictions on our bargaining rights, ultimately we have no ability to make any improvements unless the university is willing to talk – no right to arbitration, and no right even to the assistance of a mediator.  Under the Labour Code, however, there would be no such restrictions on bargaining, and any issue we raised could be put before a mediator or arbitrator.


The SFUFA Executive will propose a motion to continue this consultation process and, if and when the time is right, to pursue union certification.  The biggest prize would be that all of us – the professoriate, teaching appointments, librarians and archivists – would have a stronger voice in university affairs.

I will write to you again about my vision for what our relations with the administration could be like if we were a union – a vision based on the idea that a traditional approach to union/management relations would be counterproductive.  Zero sum games, and win/lose combat can and should be avoided, unionized or not.

SFUFA and SFU have had a long history of successful collaboration, and I believe we could have a collaborative union/ management partnership that would have real and substantial benefits for both ourselves and our administrators.  Our quality of working life, and possibly our remuneration, would improve.  But the administration could realize benefits, too, and  with faculty input strengthened, students would find SFU a happier and more service oriented institution.

In closing, I urge you all to inform yourselves about the potential benefits of unionization. There is a meeting October 16 with a number of speakers on unionization. They include representatives from the UBC,  UVic and UNBC faculty associations.  UBC is already unionized.  UVic is collecting member signatures for a vote on certification.  UNBC is apparently on the verge.

I have attached my speaking notes from the last members’ lunch to this message, for those who are interested. There will be a second lunch near the end of October where we will share the results of the informal polling we have been doing.  So far, the majority are in favour of some form of unionization.  I would like to have a couple of additional events, one downtown, and another perhaps in Coquitlam, in the near future.

Please come out to the November General Meeting and vote.  Details will be available soon.  It is an historic opportunity for SFUFA members to achieve a better say in how our workplace is run, and how we, and our students are served by our institution.

All the best
Neil R. Abramson, President