The Antagonistic East

Local labour relations not rancourous enough for you? Look east to Fredericton and the St. Thomas University “strikeout”. A faculty strike is now in its third week — but that strike came after the faculty was locked out by the administration December 27.

What’s at stake? Well, hard to say at this point, since the faculty association — yes, its acronym really is FAUST — has shifted focus with each iteration of the administration offer. Salary, courseload, benefits, part-time appointments, and — most importantly? — the respect the professors believe they deserve from the administration are all key issues for FAUST. On the administration side, it’s the preservation of St. Thomas as a small, teaching-focused liberal arts college with low tuition fees.

Negotiations began almost one year ago. Talks broke off mid-December, after accusations and letters flew back and forth. The administration tried to impose a vote on a final offer, then withdrew its request. FAUST set a strike vote for several days after the winter term was to begin, perhaps hoping to use captive students as a bargaining chip; the administration responded by locking out the faculty before it returned from Christmas holidays, the first time a Canadian university has locked out its faculty.

(For a comprehensive timeline, check out Facebook.)

Negotiations resumed on January 3, with the union leaving the table on January 4 after complaining the administration was not negotiating in good faith (one of several such claims, from both sides, during the negotiation process).

FAUST then held a strike vote, and despite a less-than-resounding mandate of 77.1% of full-time members and 80.4% of part-time faculty who voted, went on strike. FAUST thanked its membership for its “tremendous support.” The most tremendous support of all came from the national organization, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which ponied up a $1 million strike fund and has advised the St. T. faculty association along the way.

After a brief attempt at resuming negotiations ended up in failure once again, FAUST insisted on the appointment of a second external mediator, providing a shortlist of favoured candidates. The administration resisted the appointment, so FAUST applied to the Ministry of Post-secondary Education on its own and was successful in getting one of the shortlisted candidates:

“FAUST looks forward to receiving the assistance of the mediator who helped resolve recent faculty strikes at Cape Breton University, Dalhousie University, University of Prince Edward Island, and, most recently, Acadia University,” said Dawn Morgan, FAUST Executive Member-at-large.

After several days of negotiations, the mediator called a stalemate and issued a report that attacked FAUST’s position on salary:

A principled approach to collective bargaining, particularly on compensation, requires attention and fidelity to some basic principles… The operating premise is that a party would only be justified in maintaining its position if that original position essentially was correct and substantially answered the needs of the situation.

The Union’s position on wages is based upon another model I did not find convincing. It would drive salaries considerably higher, over the three year period of the replacement agreement for full time employees, than those of the comparator universities… I am thus unable to determine why the employer should pay salaries which seem substantially in excess of what is indicated by the compensation offered by the comparator universities mentioned above.

The union’s response: he calculated averages differently, but he sided with us on other points.

Since then, a truly awesome war of words has been waged on the partieswebsites and on Facebook. A slowly growing contingent of dissident faculty members has posted essays (remember, they’re academics) on another website, The Mysterious East. 

The administration sweetened its offer after the mediator’s report and forced a final offer vote on the faculty association, which recommended its members reject the final offer because, among other reasons,

 The final offer vote precludes negotiation of a back to work protocol or memoranda of settlement. This means the employer would dictate the terms of returning to work, making up the term, retroactivity, or lack thereof, etc.

Whereupon the administration offered to draw up back-to-work protocols with FAUST’s lawyer. As you can probably, by now, guess, that offer was refused.

The results of the final offer vote showed support for FAUST decreasing, but the rejection of the final offer was enough to drive the administration, which had been publicly musing about what it would do if the offer was rejected:

 the University will has a number of options including process solutions proposed by the external mediator that include binding arbitration, final offer selection or expedited mediation.  We are certain that the Provincial Government, as the sponsor of past conciliation and two rounds of mediation, will have views on how best to proceed to resolve this impasse.

…back to the negotiating table, where the two sides continue to meet today.

Has the nastiness stopped? Not a chance. As The Mysterious East highlights in a posting, FAUST posted a letter to members Tuesday indicating its eagerness to use the mediator’s report as the basis for a negotiated settlement, but once the adminstration had agreed to resume negotiations, reposted the message with new, less limiting language.

And the administration today posted, without comment, a Telegraph-Journal editorial highly critical of FAUST’s demands from a local paper on its website. (This seems to have been removed from the front page of the administration site sometime Friday, which seems wise.)

Meanwhile, frustrated students, worried they will either lose their semester or run out of funding before the end of a delayed winter term extended into May, are talking to law firms about launching a class action suit — against both sides.

Updated to add: What would a Canadian conflict be without some gratuitous anti-Americanism? A teasing posting about STU on Professors R-Squared, home of “Houston’s only openly Republican Political Science Professors”, has led to an even more toxic back-and-forth between pro-FAUST and anti-FAUST professors, students, with some knee-jerk nastiness about Texas to boot. Enjoy.

As of February 2, the strike is over. The winner? Mr. binding arbitration.