SFUFA President’s Message – Unionization

Dear Colleagues;

This week is the kick-off day for SFUFA’s certification drive. We are holding commencement events at all three campuses: Feb 3 (downtown), Feb 4 (Burnaby), and Feb 5 (Surrey). Quite a number of our colleagues have volunteered to begin to canvass all of us, asking if we are willing to sign cards to be members of a unionized SFUFA. This campaign could run for the next 12 or more weeks. UVic faculty association, however, completed their card drive last fall in just seven weeks. UNBC faculty association is currently conducting the same sort of card drive for the same purpose. They started last week.

If more than 45% of our members are willing to sign cards, and we would prefer 60%+, then the Labour Relations Board (LRB) would sponsor a formal vote on certification. If 50%+1 vote in favour, SFUFA would be unionized. For your information, UVic faculty association collected cards for 63% of its members. The LRB organized an electronic vote and 63% voted in favour. As far as we are aware, this was the first electronic vote ever approved by the LRB. I would hope that if enough cards were collected for a vote, SFUFA’s would be the 2nd electronic LRB vote.

What Happens if We Unionize

If 50%+1 vote for unionization in the LRB sponsored vote, then SFUFA will become a union. The next task would be to negotiate a new contract to replace our existing framework agreement with SFU’s administration.

Under the Labour Relations Code, all terms and conditions would remain in effect for at least four months to allow time to negotiate a new contract. A number of members have expressed some fear about this. What happens if four months pass and there isn’t a new contract yet?

The easiest solution – the one adopted at UBC when UBCFA unionized – would be simply to roll over the framework agreement and call it the new contract, save for any particular changes we negotiated at that time. Virtually all new first contracts for newly unionized faculty associations look almost identical to their previous non unionized agreements – never has anyone had to start from scratch. And you know that aside from Alberta where unionization is illegal [and yet they benefit from a legal framework we can only access in BC if we become a union] there are only a handful of non-unionized Canadian university faculty associations; SFU, Toronto, McGill, McMaster and Waterloo.

I think the important point we have to understand in all this is that a unionized SFUFA would be in a different legal situation, and so would our administration.

If SFUFA was a union, its authority would be derived from the LRB. The LRB would recognize SFUFA and SFU as equal bargaining agents. SFUFA would be empowered to negotiate all issues related to its members including governance and working conditions. These rights could not be taken away by our administration. Currently SFUFA is limited to negotiating salaries and benefits unless the administration agrees to discuss governance and/or working conditions. Sometimes they do; sometimes not so much, as in the case of Learning Objectives last year. Back when SFU started, almost 50 years ago, the administration granted SFUFA its rights to represent faculty members. I imagine the framework agreement was granted to SFUFA in much the same way as Moses brought the Ten Commandments down the mountain from God. But Moses himself never reached the “promised land.” He offended God and this was his punishment; to see it but not reach it. And as long as SFUFA is not unionized and derives its authority from the administration, this authority may be taken away by administrative fiat – we can see equality at the bargaining table, but can’t quite get there. Is it likely SFU would ever revoke our bargaining rights? No. But it’s a possibility, and a previous SFUFA president tells us that it has been threatened in the recent past.

And what if we weren’t done in four months? Then we would expect to continue under the old framework until we had finally reached a new agreement. These discussions take take time. People have to get used to their new roles and positions. We’re all friends and have worked together amicably for years.

On our side, we might be very happy to roll the bulk of the framework over to become the first contract even though there are certain issues we might like to address. If the administration wanted to propose some changes, we might be very happy to make trades, giving them something they wanted for something our members wanted. I would personally hope we could maintain our positive relationship by always offering to cooperate and collaborate, trying to satisfy both sides. We mostly do this anyway, both SFUFA and the administration. Of course, we should expect there to be things about our current agreement the administration would like to change, just as there are things we would want to address. But we should not expect our agreements overall to be simply eliminated. I hear colleagues who may not support certification worrying that our administration might want to reduce our contractual protections for academic freedom. Can our administration take academic freedom away if SFUFA unionizes? Not likely! Nothing like this has ever happened in a certification process. Academic freedom continues to be underpin everything faculty do at Canadian universities, unionized or not. And of course, the current agreement serves the purposes of the administration as well, defining the obligations and duty of our members to the university. You can’t run a complex organization without such agreements, and no one would want to try.

So, while we cannot see into the future, it is safe to expect that, if we unionized, we would continue to work under the same terms as we do now until we raised specific areas for discussion and found a compromise that both sides could live with. And if things get difficult in that process, we would have access to the LRB, which provides mediation services and even arbitration for first collective agreements. The point is, worst-case scenarios are simply not the reality of this process. Faculty unionize, and terms of work largely stay the same until the two parties agree to do something differently. And we and the administration have a long history of collegial bargaining and strong relationship to build on.

All the best
Neil Abramson
President, SFUFA
Beedie School