Have been thinking today

about my “collective bargaining philosophy.” Initially the phrase struck me as strange. Collective bargaining, after all, is a core practice of unions. It is the emblem, and the culmination, of what we do. Unionizing is considered by the United Nations as a fundamental human right; furthermore, it is an enabling right: like education, for example, the right to unionize is a right that enables us to defend other rights. In Canada as in many other jurisdictions we have the right to form and to join unions, and as unions we have the duty and obligation to represent our members and to bargain in good faith. Surely all of this is understood?

But it has come to my attention that our employer has posted a “bargaining philosophy” and it is only polite to acknowledge it. And perhaps it is time after all to throw out a few ideas, if only in opposition to widespread corporate media clichés about greedy union fat-cats yadda yadda &c. Not, she hastens to add, that the aforementioned “philosophy” has anything to say on the subject of cats, greedy or otherwise. No, it is an apparently benign, and certainly succinct, document. Though there are one or two things one might mention.

“[T]he [employer’s] bargaining teams will approach their activities using an evidence-based approach”: well and good. We are a university; we believe in empirical approaches . Well, most of us. Of course, there is nothing particularly empirical about “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which, as noted, has something to say about unions and bargaining. So while both sides of the table will no doubt rely on a rich array of evidence, one trusts that principles — philosophy, even — will not be too far away.

One might also quibble that the admirable number of synonyms for “austerity” sandwiched into this short document are perhaps more strategic than philosophic.

It is not a quibble, however, to note that the first sentence states that the objective of this round of bargaining, for one side of the table at least, is to further UNB’s “strategic plan” (or “strat plan” as it is known on the street).

Now even if we all had been given a vote on the “strat plan” — which we were not — and even if it had been initiated at the grass roots and developed from the ground up through countless talking circles — which it was not — it would hardly seem an appropriate focus for collective bargaining. For one thing it is a five year plan, from 2011 to 2016, it says so on the web page. I mean, if we sign two four year agreements, they would each take us one year beyond the scope of the strat plan and just leave us dangling there.

The AUNBT/UNB full-time collective agreement is not ephemeral. It is a living document, shaped and developed since its first iteration in 1980. It is what is known in the trade as a “mature” collective agreement. The CAE agreement, much younger, is likewise a living document, much of its potential still unrealized. Collective agreements go far beyond minutiae; they represent the collective aspirations of a group of people seeking to shape their work over a much longer cycle. Academic collective agreements in particular deal with so much more than salaries and benefits. More broadly, collective agreements are a force for a social good: if it weren’t for unions and collective agreements, my son would not be at the dining room table doing his homework right now, he would be in a match factory or up a chimney somewhere. And I would not be sitting here. Whether we are conscious of it or not, each time we go to a union meeting or sit down at the bargaining table, we are participating, however glancingly, in a long history of social progress.

Of course many academics — those with full-time positions, at least — are privileged. Some of us have the luxury of not having to fight for basic labour rights. But we are fighting for the value and integrity of our profession, for accessible education as a public good, for disinterested enquiry and curiosity-based research, for academic freedom and institutional autonomy, to protect the right to participate in the governance of our institution, and for democratic access to shared knowledge and culture.

I’m thinking that it may take more than five years.

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