The Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA) issued a strike notice for January 4 at 9 a.m. and, since an agreement with the university could not be reached before that date, a strike will ensue. Concordia however, is certainly not the only Alberta post-secondary institution that is at risk of a work stoppage. Amid the crumbling climate of post-secondary institutions in Alberta, strikes are shaping up to become a disruptive reality; but it’s one that is probably worthwhile for faculty, non-academic staff, and even for students.
That being said, that does not mean strikes are not without concern for students. A strike often means weeks of missed classes, which leaves everyone playing catch-up, and a term that has to be extended. This has implications for graduation dates, travel plans, summer employment opportunities, and amongst all the chaos, many may just choose to withdraw from courses. The potentially lost time and tuition dollars that strikes can use up are never refunded to students.
In light of this, some may wonder why students would choose to act in solidarity with faculty associations in the first place. By looking at the state of different universities in Alberta and Canada at large, this becomes clear.
In our neighbouring prairie province, the University of Manitoba just saw the end of an over month-long faculty association strike. U of M students showed strong solidarity — with one group of students even blocking the entrance to the administration building as a show of support. Students at Concordia sympathetic to the cause of their own faculty association were inspired by these U of M demonstrations and have been circulating a petition expressing their support for the association. In both cases, retaining quality faculty members was the primary concern.
Beyond Concordia University, staff associations and administration are butting heads and struggling to reach agreements at many other Alberta post-secondary institutions. The University of Lethbridge and Athabasca University both have ongoing collective agreement negotiations that are years in the making, with limited progress being made. Additionally, our own University of Alberta administration is in the midst of bargaining with both the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA) and the Association of Academic Staff (AASUA).
It is not difficult to see how these associations are in solidarity with one another and taking notes about what their fellow associations are doing. The NASA and AAUSA picket that took place off campus in November had a strong turnout of other post-secondary staff associations from Edmonton, as well as the Alberta Federation of Labour, and leaders of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Perhaps Concordia University going on strike is a sign of a rekindling of the Alberta labour movement and will have a domino effect for other institutions.
The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) is probably the institution that would be most likely to follow in Concordia’s footsteps with a strike. Their negotiations have been ongoing since 2018 and their website says that “bargaining continues with little progress at the table.”
In fact, the association says that the likelihood of a work stoppage at AU is higher than usual.
“The work stoppage planning committee initially felt that, with a good strike plan in place, there was a 25 per cent chance of a work stoppage after bargaining commences,” their website says. However, as “bargaining drags on with no progress, the risk of a work stoppage increases and we now assess the chance of a work stoppage as 50 per cent.”
A work stoppage can also come in the form of a lockout, where the employer locks employees out of the workplace — this also terminates the pre-existing collective agreement. New terms of work are then presented and if employees return to work, they are accepting those terms. Typically, a strike is used by workers to counter this tactic. AUFA predicts that for them, this is the most likely scenario.
A common theme is that staff at many of these institutions are being offered a bad deal.
Athabasca University asked faculty to take a two year wage freeze, with no promise of raises afterwards. Faculty at Concordia University are also unhappy with their pay which is comparably low when looking at similar Canadian universities. This is while the past two years have been two of the best financial years for the school — with large surpluses that helped buy the Magrath Mansion for example.
The University of Lethbridge offered a four per cent salary decrease retroactively beginning July 2020 to the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA). This proposal threatens to take back funds that staff have already been paid.
At the University of Alberta, administration asked staff represented by NASA to take a three per cent pay cut and to start paying for a portion of their benefits through co-pay. Among other things, the AAUSA is expressing opposition to the new high-paying senior leadership positions brought in by academic restructuring.
These freezes and rollbacks in pay are due in part because of recent provincial budget cuts to post-secondary — but not entirely. Some of these negotiations predate the Kenney government, which points to some of the longer term trends of post-secondary education. We are moving towards a model where new academic staff are mostly sessional instructors with poor pay and no job security. Meanwhile, non-academic staff are slashed entirely or outsourced.
In such a hostile environment, the university over time becomes a less desirable place to work and cannot attract high-quality faculty members.
This has an influence on the university’s ranking, which consequently has an effect on the reputation of our degrees; if the U of A does not remain a world-class university, our degrees become worth less in terms of reputation than they were before. Professors who are overworked and underpaid also cannot perform as well as they could under different circumstances. All of this together influences the quality of our education in very real ways.
This is why students should care about faculty associations and their fight to get a fair deal. Because whether we like it or not, students have a stake in the game. While a work stoppage is far from ideal, in some situations it may be necessary to maintain our quality of education and give university staff some much-needed leverage and say over the direction post-secondary is headed.
Until now, no association in Alberta has used this right, but all of that is changing today. In the current climate, universities are being run by administrators, not faculty members. The right to strike is a powerful tool now at their disposal and if needed, can check the power of administration — if there were ever a time it might be used, it’s now.