By Jeremy Appel
Faculty and academic service officers at Concordia University of Edmonton beared blistering cold temperatures on Jan. 4 to kick off the first-ever post-secondary strike action in Alberta outside a mansion the employer purchased while they were negotiating a new contract.
CUEFA president Glynis Price, who works as a lab assistant and lecturer at Concordia, told Rankandfile.ca the major issues at stake are workload, salary, disciplinary measures and intellectual property.
“The university has had two of the best financial years in their 100-year history in the last two years,” she said, pointing to its $7.8-million and $11.5-million surpluses in each preceding year.
As CUEFA points out on its website, Concordia faculty’s salaries rank 68th of 70 Canadian universities, and are dead last by $10,825 for assistant and $49,500 for full-time faculty among universities of a similar student body size.
“We’re looking for small steps that would make us more competitive with other institutions. If we want to get more instructors and more resources to the institution, we have to do that,” Price said.
Mansions, not wages
Price highlighted the symbolism of the strike launch happening at the $3.2-million Magrath Mansion, which the university opted to purchase for $1.75 million in August after the previous owners donated the rest of the cost.
“It came as a surprise to all of us,” she said of the purchase. “They say it can be used for seminars and events, but it has continuing upkeep costs, not only property taxes and making sure the lawn is mowed, but it’s a 100-year heritage building, so there are going to be repairs that need to be done … according to heritage rules.”
The building is also zoned as private residential, so the school will have to go through the arduous process of changing its zoning, and soliciting neighbours’ support to do so, if it wants to host large events there.
“It’s not particularly functional for anything,” said Price. “Especially when they’re trying to build a new building on campus and they’re in the middle of collective bargaining with faculty, it just seems like an imprudent purchase from our point of view.”
An unfair trade
Price said the university is expecting staff to trade control of their intellectual property for protection against arbitrary dismissal.
“The university sent us a package that wants us to accept their intellectual property policy in exchange for job security in our discipline article,” she explained. “In our discipline article they added the word ‘including’ in our just cause statement, which suggests we could be fired for any reason.”
Price said this trade-off wasn’t in the school’s initial offer and is “unheard of” in post-secondary negotiations.
“We don’t believe we should have to exchange anything for our own job security, especially since our former language in our previous agreements have just said ‘just cause,’” she said.
The intellectual property piece the school is offering is institutional, meaning staff would have no say over it in the event it’s changed, despite the fact that they are the ones creating the intellectual property.
An outpouring of support
Although the faculty association is relatively small, Price said they’ve been overwhelmed by the support they’ve seen from other labour organizations, such as the Edmonton and District Labour Council, Alberta Federation of Labour and the Alberta Union of Public Employees, among many others.
Due to the unbearably cold weather, supporters have brought hand and foot warmers to the picketers, as well as other donations.
“Luckily, we have a huge, huge support group outside our own association,” said Price. “We’re small, but we’re pretty loud.”
NDP labour critic, and former labour minister, Christina Gray showed up to walk the line with CUEFA, alongside MLAs Janis Irwin, Marlin Schmidt and David Eggen, as well as NDP MP Blake Desjarlais.
When Gray was labour minister in 2016, the NDP government made it legal for public sector workers, including faculty associations, to go on strike, which the UCP hasn’t rolled back.
“The pressure post-secondaries are under right now is extreme. The cuts that have been put on the sector by the UCP government are leading directly to layoffs, to wage pressures, to more work for the same pay,” Gray said, tying it into the government’s “very vocal agenda of privatization.”
But the Alberta NDP was criticized by many of its supporters in the labour movement for not increasing public sector workers’ wages when it was in power.
“We worked incredibly hard as a government to bring up into the Canadian mainstream labour relations that were completely out of whack,” Gray said in the NDP’s defence. “We engaged in free and fair collective bargaining and good faith negotiations with public sector unions during our time in government, and commit to doing the same at any point going forward.”
Students supporting staff
Third-year Concordia history student Ashley Callahan, who started the group Students Supporting the CUE Faculty Association to support university staff in the labour dispute, was also at the picket line Tuesday.
“It’s very stressful, we’re not denying that. We’re not existing in some sort of vacuum in which we’re not impacted by this. But we know that ultimately, what’s happening to the faculty association is a representation of what will happen to everyone in the work field. We’re all trying to earn degrees that we’re hoping we can use for a fair and equitable employer one day,” Callahan told Global News.
“Despite the fact that there will be disruption, we’re hoping that the administration will understand — follow the voice of the student as well as the faculty association — and come to a fair deal as quickly as possible.”
Concordia president calls the strike “regrettable”
In a Jan. 4 statement on the university’s website, president and vice-chancellor Tim Loreman said the union’s “regrettable” job action “will impact student learning, and could even threaten the semester.”
He cited progress on the issue of employee workload and said the school’s financial offers “have respected the fiscal constraints of current economic circumstances, while also offering responsible wage increases that recognize the high quality and value of our faculty and staff.”
He made no mention of job security or intellectual property considerations.
“We value each member of the Concordia community equally – from our undergraduate, graduate, and international students, to our researchers, professors and instructors, and our staff supporters and alumni members. Each contributes to the quality and access of the education and employment offered at our university,” Loreman wrote.
Expect more post-secondary strikes in the future
Athabasca University labour studies professor Jason Foster told Rankandfile.ca said now that faculty associations are able to strike in Alberta, we can expect more labour disruptions as the provincial government deepens its cuts to post-secondary institutions.
“My sense is that this is just the first. There’s a lot of unrest coming in the post-secondary sector in 2022,” he said. “It just happens that the Concordia faculty jumped first, but they won’t be the only ones.”
Faculty associations at University of Lethbridge, Mount Royal University and Athabasca University are in the midst of their own negotiations.
Concordia, a former college with Lutheran roots, is immune from what Foster called the UCP government’s “unreasonable secret wage mandate” imposed behind unions’ backs on public sector employers that restricted how much money they can offer during negotiations.
“That’s a significant factor in this strike,” said Foster. “They explicitly exempted the private, religious universities from the mandate, which I think is fascinating.”
But whether it’s a large public university or a small private one, post-secondary workers are ultimately up against the same forces looking to screw them out of wage increases, benefits, job security and academic freedom, he added.
“Each institution has its own particular grab bag of concessions it’s asking for, but it’s pretty consistent across the board,” said Foster. “The employer’s asking for everything.”