Faculty and librarians at the University of Toronto are divided over the possibility that they could become unionized employees if current talks to reform the negotiation process fail.
The institution is one of a handful of research universities in Canada where faculty are not certified as a trade union. As a result, the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) is limited in the range of matters that can be bargained during contract negotiations with the university, and cannot go on strike.
The UTFA is in the final stages of negotiating with the university to include other issues, such as involvement in academic restructuring and privacy provisions. If those talks fail, faculty could either accept the status quo or move toward a campaign to unionize.
"It's an option that's always out there," said Scott Prudham, president of the UTFA. "But the goal is to arrive at a negotiated way forward that's an alternative to certification."
Some faculty have already expressed their opposition. A union has no place in a professional, highly paid environment and could lead to strikes that disrupt the academic lives of students, they say. Those willing to consider the option say it addresses a power imbalance and keeps management from dictating the terms. A survey by the faculty association done earlier this year found that a significant minority of professors and librarians want the association to become a union.
"The notion of unionization of employees who make six-figure salaries and have job security and protection of the sort enjoyed by professors is ridiculous on its face. It is really an insult to all real labourers who fought for the right to unionize and collectively bargain," Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, wrote to U of T president Meric Gertler on Sunday.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Martin said a certified union would "discourage" talent from coming to the university. "I just don't think really high-quality professors would want to work in a union environment," he said.
Chayawat Ornthanalai, an assistant professor of finance at Rotman, added: "I do not want students to be affected."
The unionization of university faculty has been controversial across the country. Earlier this year, faculty members at the University of Victoria voted to certify as a trade union, despite some opposition, and a campaign to unionize is underway at Simon Fraser University. All of Ontario's universities are unionized except U of T, McMaster University and University of Waterloo. Certified unions represent more than 80 per cent of faculty members across Canada's research universities.
Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said there is too much fear-mongering among detractors of certification, and it hasn't negatively affected research universities. "Nobody who has ever certified has decided it was a mistake," he said.
Faculty associations are typically limited in a range of matters that can be bargained during contract negotiations with the university. Breaks in negotiations can be settled in binding interest arbitration. By certifying, everything is on the bargaining table, including workload and tenure, and failure to negotiate could lead to labour disruption.
A survey done by the UTFA last year found that a minority of members want union certification, and would prefer the association work with the university to expand their rights in the current framework.
"Our leadership has not made [a] formal decision to pursue certification. I'm just stating the obvious that the appetite for certification may well go up if the process falls apart, but we remain quite hopeful about this process," Mr. Prudham said.
Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost at U of T, said the current memorandum of agreement has allowed the institution to become one of the leading research universities, while protecting individual rights.
"Our goal in these discussions is to preserve what is great about the university and reform responsibly in areas where strengthening our collegiality is in the best interests of faculty," she said in a statement.