Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dual labour markets, exploitation, and mobilization at MacEwan

One of the most compelling labour stories in Alberta’s post-secondary sector over the past two years has been the mistreatment of sessional faculty at MacEwan University and their subsequent mobilization to protect themselves from their own union.

More than half (~60%) of MacEwan’s instructional staff are contingent workers, with little job security despite years of service. The use of limited-term contract staff has been a long-standing issue at MacEwan, stretching back into the 1990s. The presence of such a large pool of secondary labour creates two interesting labour-relations dynamics.

First, the large number of sessionals has a paradoxical effect on the permanent staff. On the one hand, less costly sessionals subsidize the better working conditions of permanent staff. On the other hand, sessionals create a ready pool of cheap replacement workers, which undermines the long-term job security and power of the permanent staff.

Second, sessionals have the votes to take over the faculty association (FA) and radically renegotiate the collective agreement in their own interests. There are numerous barriers to this mobilization, but the potential for intra-union conflict has long existed.

In the summer of 2017, when most sessionals were not employed and thus were not voting members of the faculty association, the FA ratified a new, two-year collective agreement. Permanent faculty saw extensions of their salary ranges while many sessionals saw significant cuts to their pay (some would lose up to 22% of their wages).

The MacEwan FA justified negotiating cuts to the wages of their most vulnerable members (while increasing the salaries of their most privileged members) as reasonable for the association as a whole. It also noted that sessionals were not allowed to vote because they weren’t employees at the time of the vote, even though most would return in the fall and be subject to the agreement.

This treatment galvanized a portion of the sessional population to form the MacEwan University Sessional Steering Collaborative (MUSSC). By October of 2017, MUSSC had achieved two important changes in the faculty association bylaws.

The first change extended the duration of sessional staff membership in the FA for up to a year after their contract expires. This prevents the future exclusion of sessionals from contract ratification votes due to flukes of timing.

The second change allows sessionals to run for seats on the FA executive board without restriction. Previously, sessionals were only allowed to fill two positions, despite comprising the majority of the membership.

In the early spring of 2018, there was an additional scuffle between the FA executive and MUSSC. The FA executive proposed constitutional amendments that were seen by MUSSC as an effort to negate the changes won in October. The amendments proposed by the FA executive were defeated.

By April, it appeared that pay cuts for sessionals set to take effect on July 1, 2018 would not occur. Pay cuts affecting some sessionals that took effect July 1, 2017 remain in effect.

It is unclear what exactly transpired here, but the negative publicity caused by these cuts for both the institution and the FA may have played a role in the suspension of the pay cuts. It appears that MUSSC will now be seeking restitution for the 2017 cuts during the next round of bargaining.

In addition, half of the FA’s executive board is up for election each year. Following the 2018 election, sessionals hold 5 of the 13 positions on the FA executive board. If MUSSC continues to mobilize, it may be able to secure a majority on the executive board next year.

While this story continues to unfold, it is an interesting to watch a long-disadvantaged group of workers exert power so quickly and effectively against both their own union and their employer.

One question I’m left with is what was the faculty association bargaining team thinking when they signed the memorandum of agreement? A second question is how will MacEwan University will navigate this kind of intra-union dispute? Will it try to exploit the internal division? Will it side with one side against the other?

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this excellent summary of our efforts at MacEwan. We hope for solidarity in all categories of faculty labour so there will be no opportunity to play factions off against each other.