By Natalie Sit
Four thousand three hundred and seventy-five kilometres from Calgary, the faculty of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland went on strike Oct. 31, foreshadowing a possible trend in the Atlantic region and the rest of Canada.
The Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association spent a year attempting to secure a salary proposal from the university.
The faculty’s pay was 20 per cent behind other comparable universities. In September, the university delivered a proposal, but MUNFA did not like one aspect of the contract. The contract would give a 14 per cent increase over three years to staff without a doctorate while staff with a doctorate would receive a 22 per cent increase over three years.
"About 20 per cent of our members don’t have a doctorate," said MUNFA President Noel Roy. "Our sessional lecturers didn’t get any increase at all. So we saw this as a union-splitting offer. [The university] thought they were spreading the wealth over a large enough majority that we would have to take it. But it would end up alienating a fairly large minority."
MUNFA and the university also differed on other parts of the contract. MUNFA wanted an early retirement program and severance pay for retiring faculty members. Also, MUNFA wanted the changes to begin retroactively from September 1999 while the university wanted the major increase to occur in April 2001.
"We wanted improvements in workload," said MUN Director of Faculty Relations and Chief Negotiator Jack Strawbridge. "We wanted improvements in promotion and tenure criteria to make them a little tougher [to achieve]. We got those; we had to buy something with all that money."
MUN decided to hold back on their offer until after they saw the results of negotiations between public servants and the Newfoundland government. Strawbridge believes MUN had the same issues with MUNFA as the Newfoundland government did with nurses. The provincial government paid premiums to the nurses to hire them and retain them.
"The rest of the public sector got only seven per cent over three years," said Strawbridge. "We had to wait until they finished that process with the nurses to see how it turned out. That’s why we couldn’t make our salary offer any earlier."
The strike began Oct. 31 and ended on Nov. 14. In order to compensate for missed classes and try to resolve the strike MUN decided to move the midterm break from Nov. 13-15 to Nov. 1-3, which caused problems for some students.
"It meant a lot of students had to redo their travel arrangements," said MUN Students’ Union President Keith Dunne.
Dunne believes the MUNSU kept a neutral stance throughout the negotiation but took a pro-student stance, which meant relaying information to students. Students also held a rally demanding both sides come to a peaceful and equitable deal.
"We wanted to maintain a collegial atmosphere," said Dunne. "When the strike was over, we had to work with both sides to get the best deal for students in terms of salvaging the term."
Both sides agreed underfunding by the Newfoundland government was a major cause of this strike and other Atlantic region strikes.
"If we had been able to keep pace with the rest of the country, the kind of increase we’re negotiating now would be less contentious," said Roy. "It seems the Atlantic region seems most prone to faculty strikes because the Atlantic region is feeling the most serious fiscal pressure. We’ve been seeing a trend to longer strikes."
Roy points to the four-week strike at Mount Allison University in 1999 and at University College of Cape Breton and the University of Moncton as evidence of the trend.
According to University of Calgary Vice-president Academic Ron Bond, Alberta’s Universities Act is silent on the matter of strikes by academic staff members at universities and colleges.
"The [Alberta] government regards university academic staff as being public employees," said Bond. "Our affairs are governed by the Universities Act. The Universities Act is silent on the right to strike. We’ve never had a strike involving academic staff. A strike is not likely."
University of Calgary Faculty Association President John Baker believes striking is a major step for faculty to take and all members of the university community should take the job action seriously. A strike indicates a breakdown in communication between the university and the faculty association.
"The academic staff count the well-being of students seriously," said Baker. "If a strike was resorted to during [final] term time then this would have devastating effects on students. The only other time you could strike would be the summer and who’s going to notice because you’re supposed to be off doing research."
The U of C negotiated a collective agreement with TUCFA last year that covered terms and conditions of employment. Starting in January, negotiations will begin on salary and remuneration components of the agreement.