By Marc Schroeder
What is a union for?
According to the service model, or “business unionism,” members receive services and representation in exchange for the dues they pay. Workplace concerns are processed according to grievance and other legally- and contractually-provided mechanisms, often by professional staff with the support of legal counsel. Even the negotiation of collective agreements may be viewed as a kind of union service requiring minimal member involvement. The role of members is to elect executive officers who then oversee the business of the union on their behalf.
Labour law fosters the service model. In the extreme case, some unions (notably, certain faculty associations in Alberta in recent years but not the MRFA) have argued that the final dispute resolution mechanism in bargaining ought to be compulsory binding arbitration, obviating the need for meaningful member engagement. Unsurprisingly, political activity under the service model, when it happens at all, often takes only limited forms such as union-office-led lobbying and social media campaigns targeting government policy, electoral politics, or employer reputation.
To be clear, all unions should do many of the things described above. Nevertheless, business unions rest on an inherently weak foundation. The framework of rights on which they rely was not given readily by benevolent legislators and employers. They were won by collective struggle against powerful interests.
Business unionism coasts on the gains of old struggles. It seldom leads to new systemic change and works only when external conditions are at their most favourable. Even then, at most, it secures inflationary wage increases and anodyne tweaks to the status quo. In short, it is inherently depoliticizing.
Our problem now is that the external conditions are not only unfavourable, they are actively hostile to public education. Legislative diktat, austerity budgeting, and audit culture can undo what decades of work have built, and rapidly. Our provincial government is not ideologically predisposed to change their present course merely because of any clever arguments we make, and certainly not because of moral suasion. Lobbying works for private sector representatives not because their arguments are better but because they have a different kind of concentrated economic power that academic staff associations do not. Political contestation isn’t only about “objective” rational discourse. It’s about power.
Recognizing that the true power of the union derives from the capacity of the members to engage in collective action, the organizing model seeks to help the members to build this capacity. This capacity is developed over time, through action with intention. Without this, one might as well walk into a gym after years of inactivity only to realize that a weight can’t be lifted. The capacity for collective action is unlikely to emerge spontaneously, in sufficiently organized form, the moment its recruitment is needed urgently; it is much more likely if its continual development is intentionally promoted.
The organizing model sees the capacity for collective action as the enabler of real democracy. While the urgency in our wider political context and embedded bargaining context grows by the week, my hope is that the MRFA’s leaders and members alike see the importance of doing this kind of steady capacity building across our large and collectively powerful membership. At some point in the future – not at a moment’s notice but in the not too distant future – we can deploy this power in a multitude of ways to defend our institution and to secure real gains.
Universities, like the society in which they are embedded, are locations of power, contestation, exploitation, and systemic injustice. They are also institutions of great value and promise that are worth struggling to defend and improve, and academic unions ought to be a significant, democratic force for positive change. Only the organizing model for the MRFA will make this possible.