Potential strike mobilizes WLUFA

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As a rank-and-file member of WLUFA I find myself asking why, for the second time in three years, I face the very real possibility of going on strike or being locked out on Mar. 3.

The union executive tells us that every step of the way the Laurier administration has dragged its feet, delaying and rejecting the possibility of compromise and at the last minute derailing settlement. It is, we are told, their way or the highway.
Most disturbing of all, there is only one person with an academic background on the administration’s team. For the second time in a row the chief negotiator for the administration is not someone who understands and cares about Laurier but a high-powered lawyer employed by an international firm dedicated to fighting unions. I shudder to imagine how much money this company earns from drawn-out negotiations.

Why is it necessary for the administration to adopt such an adversarial approach to negotiating with the very people whose well-being and livelihood depend on the success of Laurier?

In my seven years here WLUFA has not been an aggressive union intent upon vilifying the administration and challenging its every decision. Instead, it is committed to protecting the needs of its members and the quality of the education that we offer our students. In this vein it approaches negotiations with attention to detail, empathy for the challenges that the administration faces, and willingness to compromise.

This year the primary issue of contention is the restructuring of the pension plan. It may be that change is necessary, but an independent actuary determined that the reason for the current problems lies in the administration’s decision to take a “contribution holiday” in the 1990s.

Now the faculty – who continued to make our contributions – is asked to make up for the fact that the administration failed to put aside adequate funds at that time.

Conveniently, the administration has painted a picture of financial challenges facing the university but this seems to misrepresent reality. It is difficult to know what numbers to believe, but it is significant that the administration has not made any effort to dispel WLUFA’s assertion that for the past three years the university has enjoyed a cumulative surplus in excess of $43 million.

The Senate Finance Committee report for 2010-11 confirms that the Operating Fund “ended the year with a surplus of $16.501 million before appropriations. This is significantly better that the budgeted deficit of $1.261 million.”

What is very interesting is the fact that nearly five million of those surplus dollars came from savings from unfilled positions, temporary vacancies and the retirement of faculty and staff. This is at a time of more students, larger classes and program cuts. Why not reinvest these savings in the academic program?

Budgeting and operating a university is extremely complicated, and I applaud prudent and cautious financial management with an eye to Laurier’s long-term health. I understand that the goard of governors necessarily approves the expenditure of some surplus for important projects.

Nevertheless one does wonder why, if we face such difficult financial times, the administration opted to allocate $1.4 million for centennial celebrations and another $1 million for a “targeted advertising campaign to raise the profile of the university?”

If Laurier, as the administration says, “is facing serious financial challenges,” how can we possibly pledge $2.5 million for a specialized sports facility (a velodrome) as part of yet another expansion of Laurier (in Milton) that is of questionable benefit to the core academic mission of the university?

In response to my articles in the fall, Laurier President Max Blouw questioned my assertion that the administration was out of touch with the faculty. He pointed out that there are various opportunities for faculty to participate in university governance but all too often we fail to take advantage of these.

My intuition tells me that in many regards he is right, and that if we do not want the university’s agenda to be set by administrators alone – as is increasingly happening across North America – then we have the responsibility to become more engaged in the years to come and to provide constructive input.

Before that happens, however, it is essential that the administration demonstrate good faith by working with WLUFA rather than against it, by generating a positive atmosphere within which future cooperation can flourish. The very success of our academic mission to educate as well as to inspire depends upon this.

A strike or a lockout on Mar. 3 will signal that the administration has failed to generate this environment and that it is out of touch, not only with faculty, but also with the students who will suffer most of all.

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