“Big Tent” Organizing in Canada

by Christopher Cumo

In Canada, the Canadian Association of University
Teachers (CAUT) represents full-time faculty, and
roughly equal numbers of sessionals (part-time fac-ulty) and graduate students, estimates Mary McCarthy, a National Representative with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Thanks to the joint bargaining power of the sessionals and graduate assistants, the latter have won protection against tuition increases at several universities. This is a crucial victory, because Canadian graduate assistants, unlike their American counterparts, do not receive free tuition as part of their contracts, says Derek Blackadder, a CUPE National Representative. Other gains for sessionals and graduate assistants include pension plans, disability benefits, research grants and money for travel to conferences.

In January 2003, CUPE 4600, which represents sessional faculty and graduate assistants at Carleton University in Ottawa, won a “100 percent tuition increase” according to a CUPE 4600 press release. This left Carleton free to increase tuition so long as it gave graduate assistants $1 for every $1 of tuition increase. For graduate assistants, who were spending up to 35 percent of their pay to the university in tuition, this was an important concession. At the same time, Carleton’s sessionals won a 6.5 percent wage increase in 2003, another 6.5 percent in 2004, and protection against any groundless attempt to deny a sessional reappointment.

If unity between part-time faculty and graduate assistants brings strength to the bargaining table in Canada, perhaps contingent labor at American universities should consider this alliance. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) advocates the concept of one faculty, one workforce, one bargaining unit, says Director of Higher Education Larry Gold. The concept is what William E. Scheuerman, President of United University Professions (UUP)—AFT Local 2190—and an AFT Vice President, calls organizing labor “wall-to-wall.” Gold and Scheuerman want, wherever possible, to unite full-time faculty, part-time faculty, graduate assistants and university staff in a single local.

However, this is only possible in states whose labor relations boards permit such groupings, cautions Stephen L. Finner. Finner spent 23 years with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) before becoming Coordinator of Higher Education Services at United Professions of Vermont, the state AFT local. As in Canada, the principle of community of interest guides labor boards to approve unions of workers in the same occupation, but to cast a hostile eye at disparate groups of workers who want to band together. Community of interest promotes homogeneity rather than heterogeneity in a bargaining unit. The National Labor Relations Board can only rule on unions of employees in the private sector, leaving each state free to oversee unions of public employees. Not surprisingly, no single definition of community of interest unites all states, notes Stephen Finner, with the result being that boards in different states allow different groupings of employees to organize together.

For this reason, Finner believes the AFT is right to give its locals autonomy. Each local crafts the composition of its bargaining unit by determining what university employees want, what the state labor board will permit, and whether the university will file an objection with the board and, perhaps, contest the unit’s composition in court.

Finner uses Ohio as an example of the ad hoc process that governs the composition of a bargaining unit. During the 60s, full-time faculty organized unions at Kent State University, Youngstown State University and the University of Cincinnati. In each bargaining unit part-time faculty, who then seemed a small and inconsequential group, were excluded. Subsequently, in 1985, Ohio labor law was changed to forbid part-time faculty from organizing with full-time faculty in state colleges and universities. The law even went one step further: it barred part-time faculty them from organizing on their own. The law had no effect, however, on the bargaining rights of Ohio’s graduate students.

The Ohio Federation of Teachers, an AFT local, is challenging the law in an effort to win part-time faculty the right to bargain collectively at Ohio’s public colleges and universities, says Craig Smith, AFT Assistant Director of Higher Education. The outcome will be difficult to predict, cautions Stephen Finner. Police and other municipal employees have challenged the law in several states and lost. Courts are reluctant, Finner notes, to rule against labor law in deference to the legislature that enacted it.

Community of interest can, in fact, act as a wedge, as is the case in Michigan. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) represents graduate assistants at the University of Michigan. Part-time faculty and non-tenure track full-time faculty at Michigan recently organized, but apart from GEO. The lecturers wanted to avoid scrutiny by the state labor board, says Mary C. Crichton, a member of the university’s AAUP chapter.

In contrast, California labor law presumes part-time faculty and graduate assistants, as well as full-time faculty and staff all share a community of interest, clearing the way for them to unionize in various combinations, says Joe Berry, one-time State Coordinator for the California Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, and now a member of the Contingent Labor Organizing Committee (CLOC) at the Chicago City Colleges. Berry believes this endorsement of “big-tent” bargaining units helped him negotiate the best contracts in the country for contingent labor.

The Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at the City University of New York (CUNY) is another example of the “big-tent” approach. It is one of only two AFT units to combine graduate assistants and part-time faculty, as is done by CUPE locals in Canada, along with full-time faculty, both tenure-track, non tenure-track, and professional staff, such as librarians. However, the alliance between the groups is uneasy, admits PSC member Anthea Tillyer. Between 1972 and 2000, full-time faculty ran the unit, and negotiated little for the unit’s part-time faculty and graduate assistant members. Full-time faculty leaders went so far as to discourage part-time faculty and graduate assistants from joining the union. By 1987, a group of part-time faculty and graduate assistants had become so disenchanted that they petitioned the state labor board to decertify the PSC as their bargaining agent, says PSC member Vinny Terelli, a move that would have crippled the union.

CUNY administrators, content to allow part-time faculty and graduate assistants to languish in the PSC, opposed the decertification drive. In a move toward appeasement, union leaders quickly negotiated medical benefits for part-time faculty and graduate assistants. PSC leaders then insisted that graduate assistants receive priority over part-time faculty in the assignment of courses, says PSC member Anthea Tillyer.

These problems led adjuncts, with support from some full-time faculty, to elect new leadership in 2000. Now, some full-time faculty members complain that PSC has subordinated their interests to those of adjuncts, notes Tillyer.

Tillyer is not alone in questioning the efficacy of “big-tent” organizing. John Fiskio-Lasseter, a Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Oregon doubts the utility of an alliance between adjuncts and graduate assistants. Graduate assistants occupy a tenuous status as student and employee, notes Fiskio-Lasseter. Labor boards that define them as students will not permit them in a bargaining unit. Moreover, part-time faculty and graduate assistants diverge on major issues. Fiskio-Lasseter believes graduate assistants, in contrast to part-time faculty, have little desire to serve on faculty senates and departmental committees. Nor does he see graduate assistants fret, as do part-time faculty, over their lack of medical benefits. These differences tend to override any tendency toward cooperation in a bargaining unit.

As a result, unlike in Canada, U.S. part-time faculty and graduate assistants have few opportunities to forge alliances, believes CLOC member Joe Berry. The average adjunct teaches at a college, says Berry, where there are no graduate assistants. Illinois may have as many as 200 community colleges, colleges and universities, only 10 or 15 of which have sizable contingents of graduate assistants. At the other 185 odd institutions, part-time faculty must either form a stand-alone unit or ally with full-time faculty or staff.

The national labor unions could, of course, work toward the passage of a federal labor law, which would allow part-time workers to organize. Similarly, as the AFT is doing in Ohio, the education unions could challenge laws, which preclude “big-tent” organizing, on a state-by-state basis. Either proposition would be costly in terms of time, and money. In the many right-to-work states in the south, for instance, attempting to change state laws to allow part-time employees the right to unionize would be akin to tilting at windmills.

Aside from the differing interpretation of the legal term “principle of community” in Canada and the United States, Canadian organizers have one huge advantage in their “big-tent” organizing efforts. Canadian union officials are trying to organize far fewer faculty at far fewer institutions. Canadian universities employ approximately 110,000 college faculty. According to a recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, a CUPE official estimates that approximately 44,000-55,000 of those faculty are sessionals. In the United States, there is estimated to be 500,000 part-time faculty total employed at over 4,000 college and universities.

Two things are clear; in Canada “big-tent” organizing is effective and accepted by faculty, graduate students and even administrators. Because of this, over half of the sessional faculty in Canada are represented by a union. In the United States, fewer than 20 percent of the country’s part-timers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining. Most of those part-time faculty are organized into their own units, separate from their full-time faculty colleagues.

There is a final reason that education union strategists in the U.S. might want to more aggressively pursue state-by-state law changes which would permit “big-tent” organizing, as well as the organization of part-time faculty. Recent faculty strikes at Canadian universities at which all faculty, as well as graduate students are organized into a single local, have closed down the institutions. Conversely, during a recent strike at Eastern Michigan University, when the 150 member full-time faculty AAUP chapter threatened a walk-out, college officials announced to the local press that no classes would be canceled. The institution’s 500 part-time faculty were ready to staff the courses.

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