Labour talks fall apart

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Just like many other students at Wilfrid Laurier University, Claire Charness, a first-year psychology student who set up an online petition, doesn’t want a full-time faculty strike and encourages that they and the administration promptly settle on an agreement.

“I know for a lot of people that it will make it really hard on them, especially for us first-years. And that’s one of the reasons why we started it, we’re still getting used to it [university],” she said about her motivations to start the petition, adding that if a faculty strike were to occur it would have a substantial impact on graduating students as well.

The petition, as of press time, had approximately 1,460 signatures and comments from students.

Social media, in the realm of Laurier, has been flaring up lately with numerous accounts of speculation that a faculty strike may occur early March. These reactions, such as the ones expressed on Charness’ petition, come after the faculty filed for a ‘no board’ report after negotiations broke down in the early hours of Friday morning.

Furthermore, on Friday, after 91 per cent of the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty Association (WLUFA) who participated in the strike vote, were in favour of a strike.

On Wednesday, the ‘no board’ report the faculty filed for last week was issued, meaning that the faculty will have 17 days until they can legally strike. If the faculty decides to go on strike, then March 3 would be first official strike day.

The faculty has also applied for mediation and according to Crowley the two sides will meet for mediation on Feb. 29 and March 1.
All these developments do not mean a strike is inevitable, and WLUFA and the university administration both assert that a negotiated settlement will be reached — it s just unknown when.

“We felt we had a settlement in grasp, and I have to say, the university took it away at the last second, at two in the morning or whatever the time was on Friday,” explained Judy Bates, president of WLUFA, adding that almost every bargaining agreement so far has gone to mediation.

“[But] the faculty doesn’t want to be there [on the picket lines], I don’t want to be there, administration doesn’t want us out there, students don’t want us out there.
“Nobody wants a strike, nobody,” she repeated.

The Issues

Discussed greatly the past few weeks of bargaining have been the issues of the pension plan, professor salaries as well as the new teaching stream that calls for profs to primarily focus on teaching rather than research.

Crowley maintained that the proposals made by the university are nothing out of the ordinary. While Bates stated that Laurier faculty salaries are one of the lowest in the province, placing 14th out of 16.

Crowley disagreed, “We look at those numbers and we don’t see that. I don’t know how they get those numbers. Because when we look at the numbers, we’re right in the middle of the pack.”

He added that other universities such as McMaster and Trent, have made substantial changes to their pension plan — an on-going issue for most employers in both the public and private sector.

Herbert Pimlott, a communications professor at WLU, stated that they have analyzed the university’s financial statements and found some peculiar trends.
“The administration keeps talking about budgets, but budgets are like weather forecasts, they try and say what things will be like in a year or however long,” he explained.

Pimlott added that some of the financial information the administration has released conflicts with the on-going discussion regarding professor salaries. “A financial statement, I think it’s a legal-type document that is posted every year. It doesn’t give a lot of detail, but in the analysis that’s been of the last three years, they’ve identified a very huge surplus that’s been accumulated by the university,” he explained.

“Every year we go through a credit-rating process, it’s an independent assessment of the university’s financial situation,” said Jim Butler, the vice president: finance at Laurier. “Now having said that, the university has done really well in the last couple of the years, because we’ve had full funding for our growth and students.”

Butler warned that situation may drastically change in a year and a half once funding from the provincial government begins to dwindle and cuts occur to both private and public institutions.

“So we’re bracing ourselves for a very difficult, challenging couple of years. In senate finance and in our board committees we’ve got budget models that show that we’re going to be in a negative position for 2012-13,” he explained, adding if cuts were to happen it would occur the 2013-14 academic year.

What this means for students

Most professors, while some being directly involved in the process, don’t want students to feel anxious. Many assert that keeping informed is one thing, it’s also the students responsibility to understand.

“It’s a negotiation and negotiations can be very difficult, complex and perspectives may differ on the same objective reality,” explained Chet Robie, a business professor at Laurier. “We are anxious as the students are on the potential effects of this. We have skin in the game just like students do, we don’t want a strike, we don’t want to withhold our services.”

According to Deb MacLatchy, the vice-president: academic and provost at Laurier, if a strike were to occur, substantial changes will not be made to the semester, except the fact that full-time professors obviously wouldn’t be teaching. Contract academic staff are still expected to teach and students may still be responsible for assignments and work.

“No university has ever lost a term due to strike action by faculty or staff,” she said. “I think for the immediate time, students should focus on their day-to-day, longer term, focus on their assignments.”

Both WLUFA and the administration don’t want students to panic, despite the fact an agreement has not been achieved. However, Bates, in particular, wants students put pressure on both parties to get something done.

“We would like to see student support to push the administration to negotiate,” she said. “We’re ready to achieve a settlement, I’m not sure if the university is right now.”

On the flip side, Butler thinks they’ve offered something competitive and satisfactory. “Rest assured in an economy where everyone is suffering, we’ve tabled, I think, a very competitive proposal.”
–With files from Justin Fauteux

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since its original publishing date.

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