Colin Slark | Team Member
During the Canada Winter Games, many Prince George residents expressed that it was nice to see downtown full of people sharing a sense of community together, and that they would like to see it continue to happen after the games had come and gone. Well, downtown Prince George has been busy, but perhaps not in the way people expected. Two buildings connected to UNBC in downtown have been surrounded by striking faculty members and support staff every weekday since March 5.
Three rallies have been held in relation to the strike: a Faculty Association rally on March 7 helped faculty and their colleagues from near and far express why they are on strike, a neutral student rally held on March 12 called for government intervention in contract negotiations, and, most recently, on March 14 a different group of students held a pro-faculty rally in front of the Prince George Law Courts.
Some accused the March 12 rally of not having a clear vision, or of being too vague to accomplish anything. Agree with the message or not, the pro-faculty rally did not suffer from this problem. It was hard to estimate turnout, but there was a healthy amount of people in attendance. There were a lot of students in attendance, but there were also a lot of faculty members, perhaps there, as some on Twitter suggested, to return the favour for the large student turnout at the UNBC FA’s own rally a week earlier. The faculty support for the rally was clear, as evidenced by the presence of UNBC FA leadership, including president Dr. Jacqueline Holler, and even some members of the FA’s bargaining team who walked down George Street during a lunch break in weekend negotiations to attend.
Local musical duo Cici & Kazo warmed up the crowd as people trickled in off the street, and the rally began with Linda Horianopoulos singing a UNBC strike-flavoured version of classic pop song “Hooked On A Feeling”, with the new lyrics eliciting much laughter from the crowd. Many students held up pro-FA signs with a couple highlights being: “Get my ass back in class!” and “This wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts.” After that, things got serious. A parade of UNBC students, both undergraduates and graduates, stood at the microphone to explain why they love UNBC and why the faculty is central to their experiences. At the beginning of the rally, it was said that the group of students that organized the rally is not tied to any organization and they were free to say whatever they want, and they did.
It was easy to hear the speakers’ fears that the current pay structure at UNBC might lower the quality of their education or even the value of their degrees later down the road. Rally organizer Kelley Ware told the crowd that: “If I had to choose between taking classes on a beautiful campus with lower-calibre professors or taking classes with current professors in a bare warehouse, I’d choose the warehouse.” Graduate student Rina Stuparyk said that, in her opinion, UNBC’s faculty were the reason for the institution’s success, not the administration. Pearl Loerke stated that UNBC needs to focus on maintaining personnel, “We need to think about human infrastructure. Our university cannot be run like a machine.”
Edward Quinlan said that he felt this strike was indicative of a larger problem, what he saw as the devaluation of education in British Columbia. Quinlan used examples like the two education-related strikes over the last year in BC (BCTF and UNBC FA) and the fact that BC has a high interest rate on student loans to argue that the provincial government does not see education as a high priority. Rally organizer Emerson Pereira had a similar viewpoint, telling Over The Edge: “Education in BC in general makes me quite sad. We have a right-wing government, the BC Liberals, that does not really support education. We have a provincial government in power that focuses on small and large private businesses and the thing that bothers me the most is that rather than focusing on the universities, they believe that leaders will come from businesses.”
After students had their say and voiced support for the faculty and CUPE support staff, a visibly emotional Dr. Holler came out to thank students for their support. It was then announced that the UNBC FA had donated $1000 in grocery store gift cards to a group calling themselves UNBC Students For FA, in order for them to help students currently unable to make an income from their on-campus jobs buy food. One of these students, UNBC student Liana Mancini, commented that: “In the midst of the strike, faculty has us in mind.” As the event winded down, things got slightly chaotic. Cries of “Free speech!” could be heard in the distance, getting closer and louder as time went on. Eventually, a herd of 30 or so protesters from a different event, protesting the controversial anti-terrorism bill, marched to the courthouse square, waving signs of their own. However, once they arrived, they did quiet down enough so that the student rally could conclude satisfactorily.
The organizers of this rally freely admitted that, alone, this rally solves nothing. Rather, it is a basis from which to start providing concrete support for faculty. One student went around collecting signature for a petition on behalf of UNBC students and alumni in favour of faculty. You can find that petition online at www.change.org/p/university-of-northern-british-columbia-administration-student-and-alumni-statement-in-support-of-the-faculty-association.
A different group of students declared that every day starting Monday March 16 they will march up Cranbrook Hill and cross the picket line, waiting outside of UNBC president Dr. Daniel Weeks’ office until they feel satisfied he is addressing their concerns. One of the rally organizers, James Mangan, posted in the rally’s Facebook group that he is trying to organize a visit by students to Prince George MLAs on Wednesday, March 18.
Negotiations do not seem to have advanced much last Saturday, with UNBC administration commenting on the FA’s recent counter-proposal: “The University’s perspective is that it does not represent a substantial shift from the FA bargaining team’s original compensation position tabled on June 11, 2014.” Some faculty members expressed on Twitter that they were unhappy with the fact that UNBC president Dr. Daniel Weeks and other high-ranking administrators are not at the bargaining table. It would seem that the next week of classes are still very much in doubt.
For continuing developments on the UNBC strike, there are several places to get up to date news. The hashtag #unbcstrike is very active on Twitter, unbcfa.ca features updates from faculty most days and the administration’s updates can be found at unbc.ca/faculty-relations. Also, overtheedgenewspaper.ca will feature online articles you won’t see in print about the strike.