Who’s afraid of their right to strike? Disagreement among GSA Council and other academic associations undermine claims of anti-unionization consensus

This article is part three in a series of three opinion pieces discussing how the University of Alberta’s Graduate Student Association (GSA) has suppressed and misrepresented the voices and constitutional rights of its graduate students. You can read the first instalment here and the second one here.


In Fall 2016, the Alberta government renewed public consultations on the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA), which currently denies academic workers their constitutional right to freedom of association.

The initial round of consultations came in fall 2015 in response to a Supreme Court ruling in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan which deemed the right to strike to be constitutional. At the University of Alberta, however, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) discussed the prospect of unionization only once, at the September 2016 GSA Council meeting. At that meeting, GSA President Sarah Ficko framed the discussion around two key anti-unionization claims: a personalized concern over losing her seat on the U of A Board of Governors, and a $16.8-million estimate for a strike fund.

Neither claim, however, was justified by evidence, and neither was even recorded in that meeting’s minutes. At the October GSA Council meeting, Shaina Humble, GSA Representative for the Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC), had to move to amend the September minutes. While the motion passed, only the budgetary figure was added, apparently because the matter of Ficko’s concern about losing her Board of Governors seat was deemed to have already been recorded, even though only in euphemistic terms generalizing away from Ficko: “S Ficko also raised the concern that the strike/lockout model could impact the capacity of Student Leaders to attend and participate in the Board of Governors…” Ironically, the motion to amend the minutes itself was then not recorded in the minutes for the meeting in which it was moved. The same councillor also attempted to add the right-to-strike consultation to the October agenda, since the issue had seemed so unresolved at the previous council, but was rejected despite the October meeting turning out to be one of the shortest in recent GSA memory.

Due to the short consultation timelines, the request was sent less than one week before the meeting, and the Standing Orders of the GSA Council dictate that “Substantive items received after this initial mailing date (of the meeting agenda) are added at the discretion of the Speaker.” However, the consolidated agenda had not yet been sent out and Speaker Sulya Fenichel did not reject the addition at her sole “discretion of the Speaker” but only, in fact, in consultation with GSA admin, including President Ficko. As Fenichel responded by email, “I have been able to consult with our admin team and Sarah (Ficko) and can now confidently share the following: Per the Standing Orders Council, and because it’s a good governance practice, we do not tend to add substantive items to agendas for the Second Mailing unless it’s an emergency. Given the government’s deadline for position submissions and wider consultation has passed it is felt that even should GSEC have voted in favour (of unionization) earlier in the day, we would not have been able to justify the inclusion of this item on the agenda at this time.”

But, contrary to the position taken by the GSA under the lobby group ab-GPAC, the September minutes did reflect some of the discord amongst GSA Councillors. Some groups (after Ficko’s briefing) raised similar fears of reduced GSA powers or “damag(e) for graduate students” in time, pay, education, supervisor relationships, etc. But many other concerns were raised as well. Nearly everyone noted the difficulty of generalizing for grad students since funding and employment vary across programs and situations. Others believed unionization could increase GSA powers: “The fact the option (to strike) is on the table might change the discussion,” “could be beneficial with respect to benefits, remuneration and alleviate a feeling of powerlessness,” or could “better improve working conditions.” Others noted “(t)he power imbalance between graduate students and professors,” which, importantly, government consultations in both 2015 and 2016 have largely ignored by lumping contract instructors, grad students, and full-time faculty all as “academic workers.” But what’s the point of revising workers’ rights, if not for the most exploited workers, whose administrators are so afraid of them standing up for their rights that they don’t even want them to have the option? Many other GSA councillors also requested more research or data, including “to hear more about specific numbers for things such as union dues,” i.e., the $16.8-million estimate. Even Ficko called the issue “polarizing” and, when a complaint about overwork from Councillor-at-Large Ahmed Najar caused labour issues to resurge briefly at October Council, expressed that, despite her attempts to redefine grad students as “junior colleagues,” grad students are treated like “slaves.”

Yet, Ficko said to me in November, “We’re going to stay as we are… we (ab-GPAC) were unanimous,” echoing the position taken to government by some of the same top university administrators on whose Board of Governors she fears losing her seat. “(T)he primary purpose is not to work,” those university presidents (David Turpin, U of A; Elizabeth Cannon, U of Calgary; Mike Mahon, U of Lethbridge) wrote of the same grad students whom Ficko, in response to Najar’s complaint about overwork, identified as “slaves.” Yet Ficko also told me in November that she believes the government will reject her status quo position (again), because, in the words of lawyer Blair Chahley, who advised the Association of Academic Staff: U of A (AASUA), “(t)he status quo is… not an option — the PSLA… does not conform to… constitutional law.” So why, again, doesn’t the GSA want to represent and prepare its constituents for the future its own board believes is likely?

By contrast, the AASUA, which includes both full-time faculty and contract instructors — some of whom are also grad students and, thus, in a paradox common to the university’s mixture of employment and student designations, are also GSA members — has held lively forums and published documentation, including a council-approved position letter to government which argues against several points in the PSLA and advocates for a deemed certification transition model. AASUA President Carolyn Sale, in a January meeting with the Labour & Equity Committee of the Graduate Students of English Collective (GSEC), one of the many departmental student groups misrepresented by the GSA, emphasized that direct organizational advocacy is essential to a functional democracy. Otherwise, in the AASUA’s case, their position can end up subsumed by the Confederation Of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA), the faculty equivalent of ab-GPAC which, like ab-GPAC, in 2015 took a pro-PSLA stance to government.

So who’s so afraid to strike as to fear their constitutional right to strike? If workers fear their very rights, then how badly are they truly in need of better negotiation, leverage, and terms of employment? PSLA or not, constitutional freedoms are for the taking, where there’s political will. Why wait around while administrators like David Turpin sit in their ivory towers earning roughly $500,000 per year to manipulate the fates of grad students earning $25,000 to do the actual work of research, teaching, and administration? One of the goals in U of A’s 2016 Strategic Plan is to “SUSTAIN our people, our work, and the environment by attracting and stewarding the resources we need to deliver excellence to the benefit of all” but there are no specific objectives in that section regarding labour equity. In such an institution, it is no surprise that the Board of Governors and the GSA president are getting on so well. As VP External and ab-GPAC member Masoud Khademi’s GSA “resume” puts it: “It has certainly been the voice, speaking over instead of with and on behalf of the others.”