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Weak economy makes for contentious bargaining

One result is more strikes than usual on Canadian campuses, experts say.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | NOV 16 2011

The unstable economic climate and tightening provincial budgets in some parts of the country have led to contentious bargaining this fall, with labour unrest spilling onto university and college campuses.

Several institutions have experienced strikes this fall. At Manitoba’s Brandon University, 240 striking faculty members and librarians have been off the job since Oct. 12, already the longest university strike in the province’s history. The two sides remain far apart and a provincially appointed mediator has recommended sending the case to binding arbitration. This is the second faculty strike at Brandon in three years.

Meanwhile, conciliation talks held the week of Nov. 7 failed to resolve a long-running dispute at McGill University, where 1,700 non-academic staff members including laboratory and information technology technicians walked off the job Sept. 1. Michael di Grappa, vice-principal administration and finance, said progress was made on issues around pensions, benefits and premiums but the two sides remained far apart on wages. Also in Quebec, support workers at Université de Sherbrooke have been on strike since September.

More than 8,000 support staff at Ontario’s 24 community colleges waged an 18-day strike in early September before reaching an agreement. Also in September, the University of Western Ontario reached a settlement with 51 librarians and archivists after a two-week work stoppage. The Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology experienced a two-week strike of academic and professional services staff in September before the two sides reached an agreement. At least two other university campuses have seen strikes since the beginning of the year.

Contract talks are under way at several other institutions, and more negotiations are expected to begin in the new year.

University budgets are being squeezed as some provincial governments move to rein in spending, said Frances Woolley, an economics professor at Carleton University who researches academic salary determination. And several years of financial market turbulence and low interest rates have left many universities with large deficits in their pension plans. Meanwhile, she added, universities are facing a future of slower enrolment growth. “University administrations are looking around and they’re just not seeing rosy budget numbers ahead,” she said.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the number of contracts up for negotiation is in line with that of other years, but the unstable economic climate is making this round of bargaining more contentious. “In difficult times like this bargaining is more difficult for both sides,” he said. “So it’s not surprising to see as many strikes as there are.”

The main sticking point in many of the disputes is wages and salaries, and employer demands for higher pension contributions from employees, Dr. Turk said. An issue being raised by faculty associations this fall is higher wages and job protection for contract faculty, he added.

Dr. Woolley said that the weak economy has reduced unions’ bargaining power in many sectors, including higher education. She predicted that faculty salaries and other perquisites of academic life will continue to come under pressure in the years ahead. “The kinds of privileges that academics enjoy are unfortunately becoming increasingly anomalous,” she said.

The longest-running university strikes, according to Dr. Turk, included one at Université Laval and another at Université du Québec à Montréal; both of them occurred in 1976 and lasted four months.

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  1. Duncan Robertson / November 17, 2011 at 16:38

    The Université de Sherbrooke (12 weeks)and McGill University (13 weeks)seem to be vying to have the longest university strikes in Canada.

    At a presentation in the Bellini Pvilion Mr Masi from McGill University made it clear earlier this year that the government of Quebec has not increased university funding as much as several other provinces. He tied McGill’s call for increased student tuition to a need to maintain adequate funding.

    In the above article Jim Turk of the Association of University Teachers linked the weakness of government funding to the labour strike at several universities including McGill.

    When will the Quebec government restore adequate goverment funding for universities ?