The AASUA learned about strike preparedness and issues impacting academic freedom both in Canada and internationally at the 94th Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) council. In attendance were AASUA President Gordon Swaters, Vice-President Kristine Smitka, and Communications Officer Rachel Narvey. 

As Council takes place in Ottawa, a highlight included the chance to visit the picket line and march with striking Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers on Parliament Hill. AASUA was honoured to stand with these workers, who are fighting for fair wages, improved working conditions, and inclusive workplaces. 

Lessons from the picket line

Representatives from academic staff unions that recently went on strike shared their insights from the line during a roundtable discussion. 

The panel featured Michael Arfken, President of the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty Association (UPEIFA), Ashrafee Hossain, President of Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (MUNFA), Chantale Jeanrie, Vice-President of the Syndicat des professeurs et professeures de l’Université Laval (SPUL), and Adango Miadonye, Cape Breton University Faculty Association (CBUFA). 

Hossain explained the importance of communicating to students and the public what is at stake in the strike. In their case, this meant highlighting the fight for the rights of MUNFA’s precarious members, and the principle of collegial governance. This meant explaining the adverse effects of “revolving door contracts” on the learning experience, and educating the public through media interviews about the importance of academic staff input to governing universities. 

As UPEIFA had just ratified their new Collective Agreement April 14 following a 26-day strike, Arfken said he hadn’t been sure whether he would even make it to Ottawa for CAUT Council. He shared the “main lesson” from the line was one of solidarity “with our members, the students, colleagues across the country, and the entire island community. That absolutely made the difference.”

State of the post-secondary academic profession 

Sarah Godwin, CAUT’s Director of Labour Relations Services & General Counsel, shared preliminary results from CAUT’s state of the post-secondary academic profession survey, which was open to all post-secondary academic staff at Canadian universities and polytechnics. The goal of the survey is to build longitudinal data about issues impacting academic staff in order to help with advocacy initiatives. 

The survey found that workload is the most important work-related issue faced by academic staff, with 61% of survey respondents rating their employer as ‘terrible’ or ‘poor’ at having enough staff to balance workloads. Only two in five respondents said they feel they have the resources needed to effectively do their job, a ratio that decreases with equity deserving groups. 

Another notable stat: only one in five respondents said they believe their input is seriously considered in decision-making at their institution. 

CAUT will be sharing additional results from the survey in the coming months, which we look forward to communicating with AASUA members. 

Advocating for dedicated PSE funding in the Canada Social Transfer 

Next year will be crucial for advocacy regarding federal funding for post-secondary education (PSE), Justine De Jaegher, CAUT’s Director of Political Action and Communications, said. 

The Canada Social Transfer (CST)— which transfers funding to provinces and territories for social services— is slated for review in 2024. Currently there is no dedicated funding stream for PSE. 

CAUT will advocate towards both ensuring the review takes place, and the creation of a dedicated PSE funding stream. The latter goal will involve recommending the funding stream’s inclusion in party platforms in the 45th Canadian federal election (set to take place on or before October of 2025), De Jaegher said.  

Threats to academic freedom in Florida and Texas

Legislative changes in Texas would give government the ability to fire faculty at will, Sam Dunietz, a higher education policy specialist with the US-based National Education Association (NEA), told Council. 

The Texas Bills present the most radical change to tenure in any state, Dunietz said, adding that in Florida there have also been substantial threats to academic freedom, for example legislation that would ban universities from using funds towards programs or campus activities that “espouse diversity, equity, or inclusion, or Critical Race Theory rhetoric.”  

Targeting academics’ abilities to challenge racism is part of a wider move to silence pushback on government decisions. 

“When despots come to power one of the first things they do is discredit institutions that have authority to question their power,” Dunietz said. “If academic experts are discredited and lack legitimacy with the general public, it’s hard for them to … challenge government authorities.”

Florida and Texas have become the testing ground for measures to reduce academic freedom in the rest of the country, Dunietz said. The threat is coupled with rollbacks to labour rights in many states, allowing workers the choice to stop paying union dues and leave their unions while still benefitting from union representation. 

Resistance to these regressive changes will involve maintaining and strengthening the visibility of academic staff unions, and lawsuits in collaboration with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 

“Solidarity works, and silence equals consent,” Dunietz said.