By Andru McCracken
There were no pickets at UNBC over the weekend and bargaining was set to resume on Tuesday, November 12th, but it’s unclear when the labour dispute between the university’s administration and faculty will be resolved.
Stephen Rader, a UNBC chemistry professor and the president of the Faculty Association said he hoped the strike would be brief.
The Faculty Association walked out of negotiations and onto the picket line on Thursday, November 8.
Rader said that professors and other academic staff were pleased that the administration understood the negative consequences of UNBC’s low wages compared to other schools and have taken action to fix it, but for Rader and his colleagues, the concessions the university demanded in return were too dear.
“Administration finally agreed with us: If we are offering among the lowest salaries in the country, talented scholars won’t be interested in coming to this university we have worked so hard to build up,” said Rader.
And Rader acknowledges the university has worked hard to get more funding from government to be able to raise wages.
“It’s not that they haven’t done anything,” said Rader. “It’s that in exchange they want to take away these rights we currently have.”
The rights Rader and professors are concerned about is the right to an appeal process when professors undergo tenure review. Rader said it’s critical that a review process be in place because the consequences for scholars not making the grade are massive.
“They have been proposing to eliminate the appeals committee,” he said. “When someone is denied tenure they are kicked out of the university. Sometimes that is totally warranted, but all due process has to have been taken with that decision. If you eliminate that appeals committee, it is more possible for poor decisions to go through.”
For Rader and his peers, the elimination of the appeals committee represents an unwelcome attempt by the administration to adjust the balance of the inner workings of the university in their favour.
“It’s a bedrock principle that these kind of decisions should be made by the colleagues. Those are the people that have the best understanding on [what a professor’s] accomplishments are and how they fit in. This is really the fundamental principle universities are built on.”
Rader said that unlike the industrial model that cleanly pits management and employees on separate sides, a university is co-managed by administration and faculty.
“Administrators don’t have the expertise to [judge academic success],” he said.
Rader said that accepting the salary increase while giving in on the appeals committee issue would put UNBC in a different, but similar disadvantage underpaying academic staff and threaten the future of the school
“We’d be no better off,” he said.
Former Dunster resident Josh Reimer is in his fifth year at UNBC pursuing a bachelor of commerce with a double major in finance and accounting. He’s due to graduate in December and already has a full time contract signed with an accounting firm and he said it’s imperative that the semester isn’t delayed longer than it needs to be.
“I am going to start with them in January,” he said. “But it’s based on the premise that I will be able to graduate.”
Josh said he’s not clear on the issues causing the dispute.
“A lot of students are really pro-faculty; some are pro-university. I don’t really see it like that,” said Reimer.
“You should always get paid what you feel you deserve, but there needs to be a little give and take.”
Reimer said many of his classmates are headed back home until school gets back in session.
Reimer however has an exam scheduled Tuesday morning worth 20% of his grade. He said it is frustrating not knowing if he’ll have to take it or not.
“The most likely outcome is that it will be resolved in a week or two and the course syllabus will be amended to exclude what would have been taught,” he said.
Reimer said during strike action in 2015 he was refunded a prorated tuition fee.
“To sacrifice a couple weeks of what you have paid to be educated is not ideal,” he said.
Josh’s sister Jael Reimer is in her first year in general studies, she’s only been at the school for a few months and she’s there as McBride’s UNBC Scholar for getting top marks in her graduating class.
Jael was sweating a project and presentation that was due on Thursday, the day the strike was called.
“It was good because I had more time to work on it,” said Jael.
Jael said she is loving school in general.
“Technically right now I’m not losing money [because of her scholarship]. I’m not that upset. it’d be different if I was a student paying a lot of money,” she said.
Jael came back to Dunster.
“It’s nice to have a little break; it’s inconvenient at the same time. I don’t know when the strike is going to be over,” she said. “I just wanted to go home, everything at the school is a little bit tense right now.”
Rader said academic staff understand what’s at stake for students.
“It’s a huge imposition and it is very stressful for them,” said Rader. “Nobody thinks more about the student interests than the faculty: we work with them in our classrooms and in our labs.”
He said it’s unfortunate that their only recourse is to strike, an imperfect tactic borrowed from industry.
“As painful as it is for them and us, what we are doing is building a foundation for UNBC’s success. We are ensuring the faculty has they same rights that other universities have so we can thrive and prosper so their children and grandchildren will come to as good a university as there is today.”
Rader hopes the administration will concede the wages they both realize should be fixed and move the discussion about the appeals committee and what that means to the next round of bargaining.
On their website, the university published their current offer to academic staff which addresses pay gaps for instructors and say the administration is “ready to continue bargaining and remains committed to reaching an agreement at the table.”
It includes an average salary increase of 15% over three years for tenured and tenure-track faculty.
“Increases could be as much as 28% for a full professor, 22% for an associate professor, and 18% for an assistant professor. Senior lab instructors, librarians and part-time instructors will see increases of 6% on average, again in line with the provincial mandate,” reads the university labour relations update.
What isn’t included in the update is the concessions Rader is concerned about, and the reason faculty say they are striking.
Matt Wood, Communications and Marketing Director for UNBC said that the lead negotiator was unable to speak as they prepare for Tuesday’s talks. Wood did say that the issue of the appeals committee is something they hoped to discuss with the Faculty Association.