Equity and Collective Bargaining in Canadian Universities

Friday, January 15, 2010

Linda Briskin, York University
Guest Contributor
Interventions to promote employment and pay equity often focus on legislation. However, collective bargaining is a significant although often invisible instrument for promoting workplace equity. Unions, which seek to promote both social transformation and the institutional mainstreaming of equality, can empower women to act collectively in their own interests, especially in the current global context.

‘Bargaining equity’ may well depend on what I have called ‘equity bargaining’. The former refers to the equity issues themselves while the latter to the process of bargaining, bargaining strategy and the gender of negotiators. In fact, equity bargaining may well be the foundation for successfully bargaining equity issues. Without a shift in who is negotiating, and how they negotiate, there may be little change in what is negotiated. Or to put it more broadly, unions need to link the struggles around diversity, equity and representation inside unions to the collective bargaining process and agenda (Briskin 2006).

The restructuring of the labour market – increasingly-precarious employment, privatization, contracting out, and competitive wage bargaining across national boundaries – may be coincident with decreased corporate commitments to equity initiatives: “Fairness and equity in jobs are contingent upon a kind of certainty and stability that is being rapidly disrupted in many workplaces” (Wajcman 1998: 162). Restructured work is also less easily subject to pay and employment equity legislation which are also designed for the standard employment relationship (Chicha 1999).

Given the reality of weak legislation, declining government commitments to equality measures,  and changes wrought by restructuring and globalization, the Canadian Labour Congress has concluded: “The labour movement in Canada has come to realize that we cannot rely on legislation to achieve and protect equality issues. Collective bargaining is a much more effective mechanism for ensuring that these rights exist…. Therefore, it is essential that equality issues become central to collective bargaining objectives” (Canadian Labour Congress, 1998: 1) and “lead the law” (Kumar, 1993: 209).

Many Canadian faculty associations lag behind on equity initiatives taken by large Canadian unions, for example around pay equity and harassment.1 However, on the issue of employment equity, faculty associations have struggled to develop collective bargaining language to ensure representation from the equity-seeking groups designated under the Employment Equity Act.2

Undoubtedly, the relationship between negotiating and legislating equity is complex and contextual. In fact, gains in bargaining equity in Canada may well depend upon a multi-pronged strategy which emphasizes the links between legislation and bargaining, and simultaneously builds alliances with social movements outside the unions. And yet the extensive advances in collective agreement provisions and in the overall bargaining agenda in recent decades demonstrate that collective bargaining is a flexible, responsive and creative process, one that can offer much support for the equity project.

Dr. Linda Briskin is a professor in the Department of Social Science and School of Women’s Studies at York University. Email: Read Linda Briskin's full biography.

1Faculty associations have been particularly reluctant to develop effective procedures and language on co-worker harassment. In most Canadian unions, such policies are part of union constitutions/by-laws and not collective agreements, and are supported by extensive education initiatives.

2Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has developed model clauses on Elimination of Systemic Discrimination,  Non-Discrimination,  Pay Equity, and Pregnancy and Parental Leave which suggest creative ways of using collective bargaining to support an equity agenda. In 2003, the Status of Women Committee of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) prepared a document on “Maternity and Family Leave Policies at Ontario Universities.”


Briskin, Linda. Equity Bargaining/Bargaining Equity. Toronto: Centre for Research on Work and Society (CRWS), York University, 2006. Available online.

Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). “Bargaining for Equality.” CLC Women’s Symposium, Nov 1998.

Chicha, Marie-Thérèse. “The Impact of Labour Market Transformation on the Effectiveness of Laws Promoting Workplace Gender Equality.” In Women and Work, eds. Richard Chaykowski and Lisa Powell. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999, pp. 283-304.

Kumar, Pradeep. “Collective Bargaining and Women's Workplace Concerns.” In Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy and Militancy, eds. Linda Briskin and Patricia McDermott. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 207-230.

Wajcman, Judy. Managing Like a Man: Women and Men in Corporate Management. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.


Equity Matters


Equity Matters