Canadian campuses battle labour uprisings and political meddling

Covid lockdowns, provincial budget cuts and political interference driving strike activity among faculty feeling disrespect

二月 9, 2022
Protester holding banner while on strike over wage and workload disagreements in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to illustrate Canadian campuses battle labour unrest and political meddling
Source: Getty

Canadian universities are being confronted by a wave of labour unrest, reflecting the combined frustrations of Covid lockdowns, provincial budget cuts and political interference.

Institutions big and small, and across much of the country, are facing strikes or threats of labour action. Faculty at the University of Manitoba and Concordia University of Edmonton just won new labour agreements after walking off the job. Professors and instructors at Acadia University are now on strike, those at the University of Lethbridge are set to begin one, and those at several other institutions – including the University of Alberta, Ontario Tech University, Mount Royal University, Durham College and Athabasca University – are making moves towards joining them.

“It’s a bit of a winter of discontent,” said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the nation’s main faculty grouping. “There’s a long list of associations that are heading towards what looks like job action, and in a sector where it’s pretty rare for professors to go on strike.”

The reasons are complicated, and certainly involve typical demands for better pay and conditions. Covid also has been a major factor, both because the pandemic has upended worker relations with employers and because it forced delays in in-person meetings, creating a back-up of normal negotiating timetables.

Beyond their bids for better compensation, many academics have been demanding basic respect, accusing their institutions of setting aside shared-governance norms when making pandemic-related adjustments affecting teaching and curricula, and when confronting escalations in outside political demands.

“If I could sum it up,” Mr Robinson said, “I would say there’s a sense that faculty feel disrespected – disrespected by administrations, disrespected by government.”

That has been especially true in the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba, where conservative governments have pushed through measures limiting public sector salary increases, and then increasingly inserted their demands directly into contract negotiations with faculty.

The University of Alberta also has been proposing salary cuts to cope with the provincial government’s plans to cut post-secondary funding by 20 per cent over three years, said Tim Mills, an instructor of linguistics and president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta, who claimed that contractual changes would also make it easier for managers to “get rid of people whose views are inconvenient”.

Fear of political interference also weighed heavily for Orvie Dingwall, a librarian and president of the 1,200-member University of Manitoba Faculty Association, which won a new three-year contract in December after a 35-day strike. When Covid hit in 2020, stalled contract talks already had left academic staff at Manitoba with their wages essentially frozen since 2016. In return for faculty postponing a planned strike at that early stage of the pandemic, the administration offered them a one-time payment of C$1,950 (£1,130) apiece, costing the institution about C$2.4 million. But the provincial government objected, Ms Dingwall said, and punished the university by cutting the institution’s main operating allocation by C$2.4 million and redistributing that amount to the two other universities in the province.

“That demonstrates exactly what we’ve been concerned about,” Ms Dingwall said. “For the first time ever, when the university didn’t follow the suggestion from the government to the absolute T, then there was a negative impact to the university.”

Dr Mills agreed that outside political interference appeared to be the biggest new complication in labour relations in Canada. “It really feels like someone is pushing the tiller besides our employers,” he said.



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Reader's comments (1)

The Basken article above is biased and one-sided. A balanced piece would speak of average class size sizes at Laurentian, the ratio of registration in each program to number or faculty, the cost of faculty relative to student numbers, faculty salaries & benefits (some of the highest in North Amercia are in Ontario) and the overall failing financial position of Laurantian over the past decade. There are other Ontario schools needing similar restructuring. P.S. I generally vote left-of-centre.