By Jeremy Appel
A wave of post-secondary job action is sweeping across the country, with the faculty at Acadia University, University of Lethbridge and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology striking for improved working conditions.
Other faculty associations, from those at major universities such as York University and the University of Alberta to the small francophone Université Sainte-Anne in Pointe-de-l’Église N.S., and online Athabasca University are in the midst of fraught contract negotiations that could result in strike action.
This trend kicked off with a 35-day strike by University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) which ended on December 7, 2021. The strike was centred around improving salaries after a four-year wage freeze. This was followed by a strike from the Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA). This was the first post-secondary strike in Alberta’s history on January 4 right outside a mansion the university purchased in the midst of negotiations.
After 12 days, CUEFA reached a deal that included concessions from the employer on wages, workload and job security, which was ratified with 89% support.
“It’s been an intense time,” CUEFA president Glynis Price told CTV News after the agreement was reached. “To be able to make modest gains and get back into the classroom, so the entire term wasn’t lost for our students was a decision we decided to take.”
Communication breakdown at Acadia University
Faculty at Acadia University, located in the small town of Wolfville, N.S., have been on strike since February 1.
Acadia University Faculty Association (AUFA) spokesperson Jon Saklofske, a literature and media studies professor, told Rankandfile.ca that the association came to administration prepared with a set of proposals for its new contract in May 2021 — two months before their previous contract expired.
The Board of Governors got back to them in July 2021 and “were totally unprepared,” neglecting to respond to the association’s core proposals, Saklofske said.
By November 2021, admin called for a provincial conciliator and the impasse continued, so the association voted in favour of strike action in January.
The main issues centre around the ability to maintain the small class sizes Acadia is known for. Soklofske cites a “moderate increase’ in full-time tenure track positions as a key demand.
Acadia’s strategic plan calls for an increase of its student body to 4,000 from 3,300 by 2025. “We’re a small institution, but that kind of student growth impacts what we offer, which is small class sizes. I get to know all my students [and] involve them in research,” Soklofske said. “It would change the whole way we get to do educational work here.”
The association, which also represents librarians, archivists and instructors, is also seeking increased job security for part-time staff, enhanced equity, diversity and inclusivity measures, and increased salary to a level approaching the cost of living.
The faculty’s working conditions are students’ learning conditions, Soklofske emphasized.
On February 16, for the first time since the strike began, AUFA received an email from the board’s negotiating team, but it focused on various technicalities and “had nothing to do with getting back to the table and negotiating,” said Saklofske.
Acadia University provost and vice-president academic Dale Keefe told the CBC he wants to see classes resume by the month’s end.
University of Lethbridge’s scare tactics
The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) walked off the job on Feb. 10 after a 92% strike vote after being without a contract for nearly two years. Administration retaliated the next day by announcing a lockout and calling off negotiations with support staff.
The key issues for ULFA are academic freedom, pay and benefits, and the restructuring of certain departments at the university.
In a Feb. 7 statement, the U of L Board of Governors called ULFA’s demands “out-of-touch with today’s economic and workplace realities,” citing major cuts to post-secondary grants from the UCP government.
U of L has its budget slashed by 12% — around $12 million — since 2020, the CBC reported.
The board claims the entire semester could be lost due to strike action, which ULFA President Dan O’Donnell identified as an intimidation tactic.
“No university in Canada has ever lost this semester due to strike action,” O’Donnell told Lethbridge News Now. “The longest strike ever in Canadian post-secondary was at York University for three months, and they didn’t lose the semester, and we felt it was really inappropriate for an administration who one assumes already knows this to nevertheless use that in order to scare students.”
Admin is “playing games with student anxiety” after two years of pandemic-related stress, he added.
‘Invisible work’ at Ontario Tech
The day ULFA walked off the job, so too did the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Faculty Association (UOITFA).
Like U of L, this is the first strike in the history of Ontario Tech, which is based in the Toronto suburb of Oshawa.
Acting UOITFA president Kimberly Nugent told Durham Radio News that workload is the primary issue at hand.
“A lot of us supervise undergraduate and graduate students [including] capstone projects, thesis research, graduate research, and this requires significant one-on-one support, both directly and indirectly,” Nugent said, describing these additional tasks as “invisible work.”
“This is not, right now, recognized as part of our teaching workload, and it’s becoming unsustainable.”
This increased workload leads overwhelmed instructors to depend increasingly on automated assessment methods, like Scantron tests “just because we can’t keep up with the volume of assessments,” she added.
Despite the strike, some classes from sessional lecturers and teaching assistants, who aren’t part of the faculty association, continue.
UOITFA and admin announced they reached a tentative agreement on Feb. 20 after mediation over the weekend, the details of which won’t be released until the terms are ratified.
Wage increases are off the table as a result of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s 2019 passage of Bill 124, which caps public sector salary increases to one per cent for rotating “moderation periods” of three years.
A ‘shit show’ at Mount Royal
Faculty at Calgary’s Mount Royal University (MRU), which like Acadia and Ontario Tech is an undergraduate university, averted job action by reaching an agreement in principle on February 14 after almost two years of negotiations.
In early-February, the Mount Royal Faculty Association (MRFA), which represents 800 part-time and full-time faculty at the former college, had threatened strike action if progress wasn’t made on wages, which have remained stagnant since 2017, workload and uncertainty around contract employees.
As is the case in Ontario, a conservative government has interfered with the public sector collective bargaining process, with the UCP imposing a secret wage mandate on public post-secondary institutions over the heads of faculty associations, restricting how much money can be offered in negotiations.
“There’s already a problem where we’re negotiating with two different organizations, one of which isn’t part of the process, or at the table, but they’re very much controlling what is going on in the background,” explained Roberta Lexier, a historian at MRU, who emphasized she doesn’t speak for the MRFA.
During the mediation process, “it became pretty clear how little room the Board of Governors had room to maneuver or negotiate,” she added.
The mediation process narrowed the timeline within which job action would be effective, so the MRFA caved, accepting an agreement that doesn’t increase salaries near the level of inflation, nor does it do anything about workloads or the precarity of contract positions, Lexier said.
“When a deal was offered by administration, it became almost impossible for us to reject it or keep negotiating,” she said, characterizing the negotiation process as a “shit show.”
Lexier said the wave of post-secondary job action across the country is reflective of poor working conditions in a sector that has been devastated by the pandemic, as well as decades of cuts.
“This was a good opportunity and good moment for faculty associations to really fight back and start ensuring that our sector, and most importantly our students, are protected for the future,” she said.