The search for a voice

Graphic by Lena Yang

Graphic by Lena Yang

Select members of Wilfrid Laurier University’s contract academic staff have put steps towards establishing for themselves a new union.

Laurier’s current union for academic staff differs from most other institutions, in that tenured faculty and CAS are being represented by a single entity, the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association.

WLUFA is responsible for representing both parties in bargaining negotiations with the university, a task which can be complicated by the occasional contradictory goals of either party.

This sense of underrepresentation has led a group of CAS to look at what has transpired at other universities, prompting them to contact the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the group responsible for representing CAS at a number of other post-secondary institutions.

“We just need a voice, just as the Students’ Union is a student voice, we need a contract voice because we get lost within a large union,” said Nelson Joannette, CAS at both Laurier campuses. “Because we are a minority we get lost within our union, and no one is fighting for the things we want.”

Teaching faculty are divided into two categories; tenure and tenure track faculty, who have guaranteed job security, and contract academic staff.

Contract academic staff, or CAS, work on a term-by-term basis, requiring application for each course they wish to teach and being reimbursed on a by-course basis.

“We have to apply for every course we teach. We have to sell ourselves,” said Helen Ramirez, contract academic staff at both Waterloo and Brantford campuses. “So we’re always concerned about how we’re going to pay our bills.”

As a result, WLUFA can find themselves negotiating for something that may not benefit one party, but benefits the other.

“What that means is that it becomes a lot more tricky to negotiate collective agreements that includes everything that everybody wants,” said Michele Kramer, contract academic staff and president of WLUFA. “So there are occasions where unfortunately the protection of one group means that the other group feels as though they’re not getting what they want and vice-versa.”

The issue of bargaining is further compounded in that contract academic staff hold significantly less negotiating power in comparison to their tenured colleagues, leaving many feeling as if their union is not properly representing them.

Supporters of a move towards an agreement with CUPE have arranged for a caucus in August for CAS to vote on whether or not to remain with WLUFA, providing them with the coming year to spread their message and garner support.

While many see a new collective agreement under CUPE as an opportunity for CAS to negotiate a fair agreement, Kramer warns that leaving WLUFA would have some potential consequences for CAS at Laurier.

“In order to negotiate, what will happen, if this occurs, is that current contract faculty will have to give up their current agreement, and they will have a point in time where they have no collective agreement at all.”

Aware of the discontent with representation, WLUFA understands the need to change the way in which parties hold bargaining power at Laurier.

“The union is going through a process of trying to make changes to the association’s constitution to see if there are better ways to have all of our members represented,” said Kramer.

“I think that there could be changes that could help to make a lot more contract faculty more comfortable with the way they’re represented with the union.”

Despite the risks, a select group of CAS feel the need to step away from the status quo and attempt to forge for themselves a better path.

“We also recognize that sometimes it is important to forge a road, a more singular road, where you can have everybody involved,” said Ramirez.

“We want people to understand that there are other choices for them in terms of learning how to push their needs for a more secure work life forward.”

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