Monday, February 7, 2022 | Category: Eduvation Insider
The COVID19 pandemic doesn’t really require an update, since “COVID19: What Next?” from Jan 21. Case counts are continuing to decline, at least in Canada, and while it’s disappointing to see just 41% of Canadians have their booster shots, we likely have a few months before another variant commands our attention.
As I detailed on Friday, CdnPSEs are “Halfway Out of Our Burrows” as of today, and a vocal minority of students are protesting and petitioning the return to campus.
What seems poised to REALLY disrupt higher ed in the months ahead, though, is growing friction with faculty – and like the trucker convoy, it seems to be starting in Alberta…
After 23 months of dutifully complying with ever-changing requirements for isolation, masking, vaccination and remote work, and of missing out on night life, family gatherings, holidays and life’s major milestones, a post-pandemic backlash was all but inevitable…
The “Freedom Convoy”
Apparently, Canadians’ patience, and sense of collective solidarity, has now reached the breaking point. This week, capital cities and border crossings across Canada have been besieged by convoys or blockades of 18-wheelers, ostensibly protesting the recent requirement that truckers be fully-vaxxed to freely cross the border. (Never mind that the US already requires it anyway.) Right-wing American influence is prominent, from the $10M donated on GoFundMe to the confederate and neo-Nazi flags on display. Counter-protests of the trucker “occupations” and legal actions have erupted in response, often centred around protecting hospitals, and expressing outrage at the disruption of downtown residents’ sleep and shopkeepers’ livelihoods. Several PSE campuses have been directly impacted, including Carleton and uToronto.
“It’s not a demonstration, it’s not an occupation… This is a siege, it is something that is different in our democracy than I’ve ever experienced in my life.” – Peter Sloly, Ottawa chief of police
Ironically, the truckers’ convoys are too little, too late: premiers across Canada have been falling all over themselves to lift public health restrictions just as soon as case counts plateau (even if based solely on partial data from limited PCR testing). Ontario and Quebec began lifting restrictions a week ago. Manitoba is joining them, despite expert warnings that it is still premature. Alberta is planning to end vaccine passports and almost all restrictions by the end of February. Likewise, Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe intends to eliminate restrictions this month, since the public has lost patience, and has openly supported the trucker convoy while dismissing the effectiveness of vaccines. (Moe cited a poll of 128 people to justify his decision. Critics are astounded by his embrace of dangerous misinformation.) Politicians of all stripes – including Erin O’Toole and Jason Kenney – have become scapegoats for a rising wave of populist anger.
Fault Lines Under Stress
As the world emerges from its life-or-death struggle with the coronavirus, academic anxieties are turning from personal survival back to long-running concerns about creeping neoliberalism in the academy. Last year, CAUT condemned layoffs at Laurentian and OCAD, expressed concerns about governance at Sheridan, NSCAD, UBCand uLaval, and censured uToronto. Emergency measures pushed many of us out of our comfort zones during the pandemic, and it seems to me that they will inevitably create collective bargaining flashpoints in the months ahead, particularly with faculty associations. Hybrid courses and UDL can be demanding in prep time, and students expect extended hours for online services. Digital platforms are best imposed campus-wide, but infringe upon faculty autonomy. Intellectual property rights are being hotly contested in recorded lectures and online curricula. Summer enrolments, microcredentials and “quadmesters” could disrupt the traditional academic calendar, to the extent they continue.
For 2 years, faculty and staff have willingly done “whatever it takes” to save students’ academic years, often making temporary emergency concessions. But like tectonic pressure building on a major fault line, eventually all that frustration and anger will break free – in a trucker convoy, or a campus strike.
Most so-called “strike votes” or “walkouts” by students – such as those at McGill or SFU last week – may garner a few headlines, but exert very little real pressure on PSE administrators. (Students on “strike” are just cutting off their own noses to spite their faces.) By comparison, staff or faculty labour actions can disrupt campus operations, the academic calendar and student recruitment efforts, and carry significant financial implications as well. And in the wake of 2 years of “COVID calm” on the labour front, we can expect some post-pandemic pandemonium…
Back in October, November, and December – before the Omicron wave set us back – I devoted considerable space to early warnings of the labour relations storm brewing for CdnPSE as it emerges from the pandemic. Broader societal unrest was driving what some called the “Great Resignation” or “Striketober” south of the border. Faculty and staff were burned out after more than a year of stress and overwork, continually adapting to remote work and/or covering for absent colleagues. Canada’s inflation rate was at an 18-year high, and many CdnPSEs were enjoying comfortable budget surpluses from all that pandemic belt-tightening. We saw NBCCaffected by a provincewide CUPE strike, and uManitoba’s Fall term derailed by a 35-day faculty strike. Faculty voted 90% for strike mandates at Concordia U of Edmonton and Ontario Tech. There were tensions with casual employees at uToronto and residence floor fellows at McGill. And 8 weeks ago, when I last reported on the theme, Ontario College faculty were mid-vote, and clearly girding themselves for battle.
Thanks to the Omicron wave, the past 2 months have been a pandemic in miniature, but nonetheless CdnPSE labour unions have not been complacent. Particularly in Alberta, where government budget cuts have been most severe, and political unrest has been surfacing in so many other ways as well…
uAlberta “Mock Strike”
Aside from Laurentian, uAlberta has perhaps been the “poster child” of CdnPSE for massive restructuring and layoffs during the pandemic. Major cuts in provincial funding led to more than 1,000 layoffs at UofA in 2020. Contract negotiations have been stalled since Nov 2020, when administration proposed a 3% pay cut, followed by 3 more years of wage freezes. Although uAlberta has never seen a strike on its campus before, faculty and staff staged an “information picket” on Nov 26. Global
10 Day Strike at CUE
Bargaining at Concordia U of Edmonton began in May 2021. After 7 months, just before Christmas, the faculty association issued an ultimatum: the first faculty strike in Alberta history would begin at CUE on Jan 4 if a new contract was not settled over the holidays. (Classes were scheduled to start Jan 5.) Both sides had agreed on about half of 41 issues, but CUEFA still wanted workload, job security, IP and salary terms “comparable to other universities.” (CUE reported an $11.5M surplus last March, prompting many in the community to urge the administration to put “students and staff before profit.” The union claims faculty salaries were ranked 68 out of 70 Canadian universities.) Predictably, the picket lines went up Jan 4, in frigid -40° Edmonton weather. 10 days later, CUEFA ratified a tentative 4-year agreement that appears to have addressed most of their outstanding concerns: “to be able to make modest gains and get back into the classroom, so the entire term wasn’t lost for our students, was a decision we decided to take.” Virtual classes resumed Jan 19, and the rejigged academic calendar extended the semester by one week, and eliminated Reading Week – prompting 1,800 students to petition.
Vote to Strike at uLeth
After almost 2 years without a contract, the uLethbridge Faculty Association withdrew from collective bargaining negotiations Jan 17, following an official offer that the university says reflected “the fiscal realities facing publicly-funded universities in Alberta.” UFLA reported an “impasse” over issues of equity for sessionals, wage parity with 5 comparator universities, and respect for collegial decision-making. ULFA claimscontract faculty were expected to adapt their courses to online delivery with little to no pay, and complains that the negotiating team kept cancelling appointments. (For its part, the University has filed a bad faith negotiations complaint against ULFA.) UofL has advised faculty that they will be unable to access email or academic platforms in the event of a strike, and that all classes and research opportunities will cease. A week ago, hundreds of students and staff “stood in solidarity and support” for ULFA, carrying picket signs on campus. After a mandatory 2-week “cooling off” period, UofL faculty reportedly voted 90% in favour of strike action last week. (Results of the vote will be officially released later today.) The earliest a strike could begin is Thursday. Meanwhile, bargaining continues. Calgary Herald
“Really, the hope in this situation is that if we can show our members are willing to strike if necessary, then we can actually avoid having to go that far…” – Dan O’Donnell, president, ULFA
2 More Weeks at MRU
Negotiations at Calgary’s Mount Royal U have been tracking roughly in parallel to uLethbridge: after 4 years of wage freezes, and faced with accelerating inflation, the MRFA has been negotiating for 22 months, throughout the pandemic. Formal mediation a week ago seems to have reached an impasse on wage, workload and job security issues. (A lot of the language sounds very similar, coming from the administrations and the faculty associations in Alberta.) MRU student leaders blame the province for creating unsustainable fiscal pressures through successive rounds of cuts – but of course the government says it’s “not involved in the negotiation process.” SAMRU calls government “the third player in these negotiations.”
“The government ultimately controls the structures and the foundations of the PSE system… Government has a huge part to play when it comes to tuition and when it comes to collective bargaining.” – Spirit River Striped Wolf, president, SAMRU
Much like Alberta, the Ontario government has imposed a 1% cap on wage increases that effectively removes compensation from the collective bargaining process. But aside from money, faculty seem to have widespread concerns about workload and the plight of contract instructors, which have led to the largest labour action in CdnPSE since the pandemic began…
OPSEU Works to Rule
The contract for 15,000 academic staff at Ontario’s 24 public colleges expired in September, but negotiations between OPSEU and the College Employer Council began in July. One self-described “union activist” summarizes key issues:
“We’re advocating for increased job security for contract faculty, who essentially need to reapply for their job every four months. We’re speaking up for academic librarians of whom there are far too few; half of Ontario colleges do not employ a single one. We’re pushing for language that will stop the outsourcing of our work… meaningful language around equity and reconciliation… [and] we’re challenging the current workload formula for instructors and professors, which has not seen a significant revision since 1985 — pre-internet, almost two generations ago.” – Annette Carla Bouzi, Business prof, Algonquin College
The 2 sides both appear to be immoveable: for example, OPSEU wants more time allocated for student evaluation, which CEC says would result in a cost increase that would effectively contravene Bill 124. In October, mediator Brian Keller walked away in dismay, arguing that the union’s 350 “unreasonable and unlawful demands” were “not realistic.” Conciliation in November was also unsuccessful. In December, OPSEU claimed the College Employer Council “refused to negotiate during conciliation,” forcing a strike vote. (OPSEU has expressed an openness to binding arbitration, but the CEC says issues of EDI, Indigeneity and workload are “far too important and nuanced to have a third party impose terms.”) Surprisingly, the faculty vote was only lukewarm: 59% voted in favour of a strike (compared to 90% at Alberta universities). Within days, on Dec 18, OPSEU began an “escalating work-to-rule and labour action campaign” that boycotts departmental and committee meetings but “won’t affect students at this point.” A month later, OPSEU was still hoping the CEC would return to the bargaining table. On Jan 17, however, the CEC instead demanded a forced-offer vote, in what OPSEU calls “an attempt… to end the months-long dispute in the lead-up to the provincial election,” by “bypassing” the negotiating table. (The CEC explains its final offer here.) On Jan 18, OPSEU moved into “phase 2” of its work-to-rule campaign.
The vote will take place Feb 15-17, which merely seems like it is postponing the inevitable. The last time the collective agreement was updated, in 2017, the faculty strike lasted 5 weeks before back-to-work legislation was imposed by premier Kathleen Wynne.
Strikes Loom at OnTech
Ontario Tech has been renegotiating the collective agreement with its faculty since last June, but the UOITFA says it has been “unwilling to meaningfully address growing concerns around workload, education quality, equity and job security.” (Ontario Tech was formerly UOIT, and the faculty association name still reflects that.) The university says it “was stunned” when the union bargaining team suspended negotiations Jan 28, and asked its members to vote on an earlier offer – which was of course rejected 80% on Feb 5. The UOITFA filed a “no-board” report on Jan 11, putting it in a legal strike position, although it has not yet declared one. Ontario Tech is simultaneously in conciliation with PSAC Local 555, representing TAs, RAs, sessionals, post-docs and exam invigilators. PSAC says it is still advocating for “more job security, fair workloads, and a clear right to disconnect.”
“With the disturbing revelation that the university now has the second highest student-to-faculty ratio in Canada, it’s no wonder that our members are experiencing burnout due to unmanageable workloads.” – Kimberly Nugent, interim president, UOITFA
Although most of the recent labour relations “tremors” have had their epicentres in Alberta or Ontario, the problem extends clear to the Atlantic…
Acadia on Strike Now
Since its contract with faculty expired last July, Acadia U says negotiations have been grappling with issues of “financial sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and academic integrity.” For its part, AUFA says it wants more tenured faculty, higher wages, and dedicated positions for Indigenous faculty members. Last November, Acadia faculty voted 94% for a strike mandate. On Jan 14, the provincially-appointed conciliator reported an impasse in negotiations, and a week later AUFA set a strike deadline of Feb 1, when last-ditch conciliation efforts failed yet again. Acadia says AUFA’s proposals have changed little in 7 months, and would “add millions of additional expenses to the university that are neither affordable nor realistic.” The third strike in Acadia’s history began Feb 1, with all classes cancelled. Global | CBC | Toronto Star
“While we might all agree that there is never a good time to strike; we suggest that, if there was ever a time not to strike, that time is now.” – Open letter from Acadia U alumni and parents
Across the country, institutional budgets are tight, faculty are overworked and burned out, and some quite similar demands are being met with quite similar responses. It seems inevitable that more labour relations challenges lie ahead!
Every day I get email notes and queries from subscribers, and I do my best to answer them – but sometimes I wonder whether other readers couldn’t do a better job…
Services Funding Formula?
Ben Bridgstock, director of student support services at Algonquin College, posed this question to me this week:
“I am looking for information on any PSE enrolment growth formulas that are used to inform funding of support services. I have asked all my colleagues in the Ontario College system and searched online, but can’t find anything on this topic. If you know of anywhere that I might look to explore this idea further that would be so helpful.”
My sense is that most institutions hope for economies of scale as enrolment grows, and only add staff when services become untenable. (Cynically, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”) But perhaps somewhere, somebody has been using a formula to calculate what growth in personnel will be required, as enrolment hits certain thresholds?
If you have any thoughts at all, please drop me a line!
As unions and employer bargaining committees compete to disseminate their sides of the negotiating “story,” this 2-min vid from Centennial College focuses on the students…
Tell Your Story
Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre is featured in this 2-min recruitment video for students interested in communications, media, art or design careers. As befits its subject, the vid features great visuals, slick editing, and upbeat music, as we watch students and faculty interacting with cool technology in campus labs and in the workplace. “How will you tell your story?” YouTube
As always, thanks for reading. I hope your week gets off to a smooth start, whatever side of the picket lines you may find yourself occupying…
Stay safe and warm out there!
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