With the passing of Bill 7 this spring, some foresee a major shift in the story of Alberta''s post-secondary labour movement. Others see a plot twist, at best.
The legislation, An Act to Enhance Post-Secondary Bargaining, amends the Post- Secondary Learning Act by bringing university faculty and academically employed graduate students'' bargaining under the Labour Relations Code. This means Graduate Student Associations (GSAs) and academic staff associations will be treated as fullfledged trade unions, or as exclusive bargaining agents, negotiating with their respective university''s Board of Governors.
The changes are the latest of many recently introduced to Alberta''s labour legislation, beginning with the right to strike being given to most public sector workers in the province last year. A landmark change, this right to strike now extends to academic staff and graduate students through Bill 7. On the surface, it''s a big first for Alberta''s academic labour landscape, too.
But the legislation doesn''t account for just how far university labour laws have lagged behind other sectors over the years.
For starters, the Employment Standards Code has never protected GSAs or staff associations, and Bill 7 will maintain this. For most other workers in the province, the Code guarantees a minimum standard for working conditions and compensation. For academic workers, these items are one more bargaining hurdle they will have to jump over before they can begin to fight for their actual worth. As it stands, the University of Alberta GSA''s current collective agreement lags behind the Code in several articles.
This is not to deny the hard work of GSAs. Granted only some of the protections unions enjoy, they have had little capacity to develop the structures needed to make the most of resources.
For example, most GSAs and staff associations won''t have strike funds built up, rendering any potential strike more a liability than leverage. Since Bill 7 denies academic employees the right to select their unions in a representative vote, they must also stay with their current associations until at least 2022 and adopt these kinds of shortcomings as they head into bargaining.
Many see that restriction as a breach of freedom of association. It also means that the structural imbalances built into these organizations will continue to affect their members throughout bargaining. This was illuminated in July in Edmonton when MacEwan University''s Faculty Association held a vote for a new collective agreement that will widen the already startling wage gap between sessional instructors and full-time instructors. On top of that, the association excluded many sessional instructors from the vote.
This situation perfectly illustrates how these organizations can be used to pit workers against each other, and further splinter worker solidarity. But it could also prove to be an opportunity to build bridges.
The sessional-tenured divide, for example, may provide an opportunity for sessional-grad student solidarity, as both have been historically undervalued.
"As Alberta''s labour landscape continues to change, it''s important for workers to continue to tear down barriers to solidarity and find common ground in order to improve workplaces for everyone," said AUPE Executive Secretary-Treasurer Jason Heistad. "A united labour movement can make gains together, ultimately improving the quality of life in Alberta as a whole."