More than 1,000 professors, teaching staff and librarians at the University of New Brunswick took strike action Monday to back demands for improved pay and working conditions.

"Fairness and respect, haven't seen it yet," they chanted at the main gates of the Fredericton campus on Monday morning.

Picket lines went up at about 7:30 a.m. Monday — a first in the university's history.

"I'm telling people that today is a peaceful demonstration," said Kelly Day, who teaches nursing, but is serving as a strike captain, organizing shifts and laying down the rules, which include no blocking traffic and no intimidating pedestrians.

UNB picket line

Member of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers on the picket line Monday at the UNB main gate. (Shaun Waters / CBC)

"We believe our cause is worth fighting for and that we’re just here to inform," said Day.

The strike affects more than 9,000 students.

UNB has suspended all classes at its Fredericton and Saint John campuses for the duration of the legal strike. Some online courses and those offered in Miramichi will continue.

Miriam Jones, the president of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers, said her group made a significant modification to its salary proposal in a last-ditch effort Sunday to avert a strike. But Jones said UNB administration made no movement on compensation and an "abrupt retrenchment" on non-monetary issues.

'We simply can't afford what the union is seeking, which is in the order of 14 per cent over two years.' - UNB president Eddy Campbell

"I wonder if they ever intended to settle," said Jones. "They kept our team talking until practically the last minute and then offered no movement. It is very difficult to view this behaviour in a charitable light."

The university issued a notice of the suspension of classes early Monday. The strike started shortly after midnight.

UNB president Eddy Campbell says faculty members are asking for too much.

"We simply can't afford what the union is seeking, which is in the order of 14 per cent over two years, or well over 20 per cent over four," he told CBC News.

It's unrealistic, said Peter McDougall, associate vice-president of human resources.

"Our student numbers have been declining. Student tuition revenues are declining. Governments are hard-pressed to provide us with operating funding."

Faculty will be locked out starting Tuesday, said Campbell. The lockout will remain in place until an agreement can be reached, he said.

"UNB remains committed to achieving a new collective agreement that serves the broad interests of students and the university community and that improves the current contract with faculty," the university release stated.

More than 90 per cent of the UNB faculty voted to strike after 10 months of negotiations failed to produce a collective agreement.

The faculty at Mount Allison University will be holding a strike vote Monday and Tuesday.

Some of the stumbling blocks in that dispute include salaries, pension contributions and the role of student evaluations of professors in performance evaluations.

Far apart on salaries

UNB strike

Members of the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers prepare to take to the picket line at the UNB main gate Monday morning. (Shaun Waters / CBC)

The Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers represents more than 1,000 professors, teaching staff and librarians at UNB. Jones said previously that starting salaries at other mid-sized Canadian universities are 20 per cent higher.

The association is seeking comparable pay and working conditions to similar sized universities.

Under the existing contract, the starting salary for an assistant professor in 2009 was $60,948 and the salary floor for a full professor was $94,397.

The salary ceiling for a professor at UNB currently stands at $150,510 under the current contract.

"We used to track the average and we were well below the average, but at least the line was parallel on the graph," said Jones. "But lately, we've been diverging and tracking down," she said.

Jones also contends the administration no longer respects the opinions of teaching staff, but rather favours efficiencies over content.

"They would rather we weren't there. We're expensive. We're troublesome. We argue back," she said.

UNB's administration states about 60 per cent of the faculty now earn more than $100,000 a year.

According to information on the proposals posted on UNB's labour web site, the university was offering a 9.5 per cent pay increase over four years, starting with a 3.2 per cent increase in the first year. 

The website states AUNBT's proposal of Jan. 12 sought a pay increase of as much as 23.47 per cent, including 5.6 per cent in the first year.

"There is a very, very big difference between those two numbers," said the university president. "We simply can't possibly afford to go beyond where we are. This is what we have to give," Campbell said.

"Our best offer is on the table," he said. "We've done our level best to get to the most we can possibly afford to give and that is what is on the table."

Risk of students losing term

Campbell said if classes don't resume within four weeks, there is a danger of students losing their term.

He suggested it may require back-to-work legislation from the provincial government to end the impasse.

"We don't have more money. We have to manage to the money that we have."

The provincial legislature is scheduled to resume sitting on Feb. 4.

Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour Jody Carr says he is monitoring the situation.

"As a government, we recognize that students and the entire university community are affected by this labour dispute, and we remain hopeful for a speedy resolution," Carr said in an emailed statement.

"Our priority is the students’ ability to finish their term with the least amount of disruption possible," he said. "As such, we are monitoring the labour situation closely and continue to encourage both parties — UNB management and the UNB faculty association — to make every effort to resolve this dispute with minimal impact to students."

The president of the student representative council at UNBSJ said students aren't sure where they stand in light of the strike.

"They're not sure in the coming weeks or months or however long this lasts, how this is going to impact their academic career at UNB," said Ashley Macosky.

"As far as students have been told, everything aside from the educational interaction is normal," he said. "So the writing centre, the math help centre, those are all open.

"All the student services are still going on," said Macosky. "There just won't be any in-class instruction or interaction with your professors regarding education."

The student council is staying neutral in the dispute, said Macosky.

"You're still going to be taught by these people. And you're still going to have to deal with them in administration, so you have to be respectful of both sides in this," he said.

Ben Whitney, president of the UNB Student Union, said news of the strike was the last thing students wanted to hear.

He's calling on students to withhold tuition until a settlement is reached. The tuition deadline is Jan. 17.

Classes at neighbouring St. Thomas University in Fredericton are to continue. Faculty at STU have received instructions on how to cross the picket line in order to get to class.

MOBILE USERS: Comparative university teaching salary chart