This past weekend–while seemingly everyone else was at the CUPE Ontario Convention–I was attending the “New Presidents Workshop” hosted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Now, I am neither new nor the president, but the President has delegated me to represent us (the Unit 2 members, that is) who are in fact new to CAUT membership. The purpose of the membership was to outline the responsibilities of local executive, to offer solutions for the challenges that await them, and to introduce and highlight the resources CAUT provides its members. Since we have a fairly elaborate and thorough structure within CUPE, we are ahead of the curve as compared to many of the faculty associations, who in many cases also do not enjoy the benefits of being members of a certified union. That said, the workshop did offer many helpful tips and insights. Moreover, in terms of resources, CAUT can provide complementary and also supplementary services to those we already within CUPE. The most obvious example is Academic Freedom. Simply put, if this is under threat, CAUT is the place to turn to defend this cornerstone of academic life. The CAUT Benefits Trust was also interesting. It operates similarly to our own practice of benefits funds being allocated with and through a third-party. However, in this case, CAUT will use its size and leverage to negotiate the best deal for members. Unfortunately, it is in its infancy and only one group has signed up for it. Nobody wants to be the first and it has yet to be implemented for Contract Academic Staff.
CAUT also offers a number of specialized workshops and training modules that are generally free to member locals. These include bargaining, arbitration, health & safety and media relations. The latter was conducted during the weekend in the form of an experiential learning exercise in which members were put through mock interviews with a hostile reporter from a local media outlet. As someone who teaches and studies the media and representations and who has done countless interviews with local news outlets, I still found the exercise eye-opening and worthwhile. The other training modules also operate on an experiential basis. Nothing prepares one for pressure like being under pressure. In addition each attendee received a binder of materials dealing with topics that would typically be covered during media interviews: issues in post-secondary education; privatization; academic freedom; civil liberties and human rights; accessibility and affordability; etc.
The arbitration module has piqued my interest since it is based on the training used by CAW to teach its rank and file members to handle arbitration cases. CAUT has not yet run it because academics, perhaps overdetermining the bounds of expertise, prefer to defer to lawyers. If enough people are interested, CAUT would probably cover the entire cost of bringing a first group to Ottawa to take the module. I’m in. Anyone else?
If I were to summarize the workshop it would to remind everyone that we’re not alone. There are others working towards the same goals, there are allies out there. CAUT has tremendous resources that are available to our members. I will be contacting the individual officers whose portfolios can benefit from these resources and I’ll be leaving the relevant materials in the union office for any member to access. In the meantime, I would also point members to the CAUT website, where they can read about the organization but also find out more among the bulletins, publications, advisories and other information they have to share.