Colin Slark | Team Member
Acutely aware of the situation regarding the contract negotiations between UNBC administration and the Faculty Association, a large crowd gathered in the Winter Garden last Wednesday to hear the instructors’ side of the story. A healthy contingent of instructors was surrounded on all sides by students, other university staff, and reporters. Led by UNBC FA president Dr. Jacqueline Holler, several members of the Faculty Association spoke passionately about what they hope to get out of negotiations and why they are motivated to achieve their goals.
While issues like how the university deals with program redundancies are of concern to the FA, the majority of time was spent talking about the wage gap between UNBC instructors and their colleagues at Canadian institutions of similar size. According to the FA, the approximate 25% difference in salary is not just harmful to instructors, but to the university as a whole. Lower wages, the FA stressed, will not only alienate current staff, but also prevent UNBC from attracting new talent, which would in turn lower the quality of education at UNBC and jeopardize the university’s status as one of the top small universities in Canada. Dr. Kevin Hutchings, professor in the English department, told the crowd that had he known that the situation at UNBC would become so dire, he might have taken a position he had been offered at an American institution a few years previously.
When it came time for the FA to answer questions, most queries addressed the elephant in the room: the potential strike. At the end of January, the FA voted 84.8% in favour of a strike mandate and they have 90 days to initiate a strike, but have yet to do so. People wanted to know: will the strike prevent me from graduating? Will the semester be extended? Will we be reimbursed for the semester if classes are cancelled? There was no answer for many of these questions, as the strike is still hypothetical and striking would be uncharted territory for UNBC’s instructors. For example, instructors do not know if they would be locked out by university administration should they strike. All they could do was point to examples from similar strikes and express that they would rather not strike except as a last resort.
After the rally, I had an opportunity to ask Dr. Holler a few questions about the ongoing contract negotiations and the recent strike vote. When asked if the strike vote had created any movement at the bargaining table, she replied: “I think what we would say is that at the table you can tell that a strike vote has been taken. The administration’s bargaining team definitely noticed.
The problem is, the progress we’ve made is so slow compared to the number of days we’ve spent in mediation and the number of hours we’ve spent in negotiations since May 2014 that we’re really looking for more. We’re looking to get this thing done in a reasonable amount of time and we’re just not at that point yet so the strike vote hasn’t had that much of an impact.”
It was reported when the FA’s strike vote results were announced that while 84.8% of voters were in favour of a strike mandate, only 67% of eligible voters had cast votes. Dr. Holler was not worried about the voter turnout, saying that: “You have to remember that the UNBC Faculty Association represents both part-time and full-time faculty members, and clinical instructors, so if you look at our full-time compliment, I think it was 91% of them [that] voted. It’s normal for us not to get very many of the part-timers voting because they just don’t see it as their issue or they feel that they shouldn’t participate in the vote so we had a much lower participation rate from out part-timers than our full-timers.”
Should the Faculty Association go on strike, they feel like they can avoid one of the big problems the BC Teachers Federation encountered during their strike last year. The BCTF’s strike fund quickly dried up which put financial strain on some of their members during the long job action. However, Dr. Holler says that should UNBC instructors go on strike, they have a 23 million dollar national strike fund they can draw from rather than the UNBC FA’s own coffers.
If you have questions about what might happen during a potential strike, or if you want to support your instructors, the UNBC FA is encouraging students to make their voices heard to the administration.
If you have a desire to watch the rally or find out more information from the Faculty Association, it can be found at unbcfa.ca or their Twitter account @UNBCFA.
In addition, Wendel Schwab, an undergraduate student representative in the UNBC Senate, would like to hear from students to better be able to ask questions on behalf of the student body and better articulate student opinions about the contract negotiation to his fellow members of the Senate. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should negotiations break down, the Faculty Association could conceivably strike with 72-hours notice before Reading Break, but the UNBC FA has promised that they will not picket or protest during the upcoming Canada Winter Games.