Faculty members at the University of Victoria have voted to certify as a trade union in a move that may signify the start of a trend across the province's research universities.
Campaigns to unionize are also under way at Simon Fraser University and the University of Northern British Columbia. If those succeed, the University of British Columbia will be left as the only major research university whose faculty is not represented by a certified union.
UBC's faculty association has been granted "voluntary recognition" by school management since 2000, giving it all the rights and responsibilities of a certified union.
"In a lot of ways, this is about modernizing the relationship between faculty and university managers," said Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. "In some ways, in the 21st century, we're finally getting around to 20th-century labour relations in our universities."
Certified unions represent more than 80 per cent of faculty members across Canada's research universities. The major exception among the provinces is Alberta, where faculty unionization is prohibited by provincial statute.
Faculty unionization was banned in B.C. from 1977 until 1992, when the NDP government under Michael Harcourt repealed an anti-unionization clause in the University Act.
Mr. Clift said strategies learned during that 15-year period are partly responsible for the delayed transfer to unionization.
"Because the existing mechanisms were working, nobody saw a need to run out and get unionized," he said. "During that time it was illegal, we came up with other ways of getting stuff done. And those old ways are no longer adequate. Which is why folks are turning to unionization now."
Unionizing, Mr. Clift said, is a way of addressing a "power imbalance" during bargaining. Faculty associations are typically limited in the range of matters that can be bargained during contract negotiations with the university. By certifying, everything is on the bargaining table. That includes workloads, tenure and curriculum, according to Mr. Clift, who said that first and foremost "unionization at UVic, UNBC and SFU is not about salaries." Rather, he said, it's about "equalizing this power and finding a way in which everybody moves forward. As opposed to this imbalance where management is just dictating things."
Not all professors are excited about the push to unionize. Martin Farnham, an economics professor at the University of Victoria, was one of those behind "Why Certify," a website created to oppose the certification movement. Prof. Farnham said his major issues with unionization centred on the possibility of strike action on campus.
"Personally, I'm making above the 90th percentile in terms of incomes," he said. "And I just feel that ethically it's problematic for me to hold my students hostage in order to get a pay raise. More broadly speaking, I worry about people in the sciences who have labs where work is very time-sensitive. A strike could be crippling to research work."
Certifying as a trade union does not necessarily mean B.C. professors will reserve the right to strike, and Prof. Farnham suggested looking at UBC's model, where breaks in negotiation can be settled by binding interest arbitration.
The push to unionize among the province's research universities comes amid turmoil in negotiations between the provincial government and the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, a union representing public school teachers in the province.
However, a union representing university faculty would bargain with university management, not directly with the province.