Special mediator appointed, students stage sit-in as UNBC strike hits 3-week mark
Classes will have to be pushed into 2020 if deal not reached by Dec. 3
Students at the University of Northern British Columbia are staging rallies and sit-ins at their school's administration building, demanding a resolution to job action that has kept them out of class since Nov. 7.
Graduate student Aaron Larsen said the sit-ins will go around the clock starting Wednesday, as the strike hits the three-week mark.
Meanwhile, the B.C. government has appointed a special mediator to resolve the dispute between university administration and the faculty association, which has affected approximately 3,500 students on campuses in Prince George, Terrace, Prince Rupert, Quesnel and Fort St. John.
Trevor Sones of the B.C. Labour Relations Board will attempt to facilitate a deal before Dec. 3.
If students aren't back in the classroom by then, the university says, fall semester classes will have to be completed in 2020.
Many worry they can't wait that long.
Melanie Bellwood, a first-year education student, said she is becoming increasingly anxious every day the strike continues.
"I pay $1,000 a month to pay rent to live in Prince George to see if maybe we'll go back to school," she said. "It's put everything I've worked really hard for on hold."
Bellwood has a part-time job downtown, but also works in the university archives, so the strike is affecting her financially. She's considering taking next semester off to ensure she doesn't fall further behind if the job action continues into the new year.
Semester likely to be completed in new year: university
Both UNBC's administration and faculty association said it's unlikely the fall semester will be cancelled altogether.
But in a notice to students, the university said the school has already passed the point where students would be able to complete their exams on schedule. Exams will instead be cancelled or held early in the new year.
Ann Duong works as a teaching assistant and plans to start her graduate studies next September, but said many of her peers are planning to transfer away from the university as a result of the strike.
"They'll be going to another school or taking other courses," she said.
Both Bellwood and Duong said one of their biggest concerns is that the strike might dissuade future students from attending the school, putting even more financial pressure on the university.
Negotiations at an 'impasse'
In a letter to the province sent Tuesday morning, UNBC faculty association president Stephen Rader said talks had reached an "impasse" and called on B.C. Minister of Labour Harry Bains to appoint a special mediator.
Bains followed through on that request with the appointment of Sones, an adjunct professor at UBC's Sauder School of Business who teaches labour relations.
UNBC administration also posted a notice online saying they supported the appointment of a mediator, and that they hope it will lead to "productive conversations."
Rader said the main sticking point in negotiations at this point is the administration's insistence they be allowed to break some aspects of signed contracts with the faculty association's approval.
Rader said such approval would open the faculty association to legal action, and called the demand "unacceptable."
He also said faculty and the university disagree on specific pay scales for different positions, though he believes both sides agree on the overall budget for faculty pay.
The university's administrative team is not speaking to media while negotiations are pending.
Rader said he expects a special negotiator will be able to resolve these issues and get students back to class quickly.
"With a day or less of concerted bargaining we could reach an agreement," he said. "[But] we've been saying that for most of the last week, so take that as you will."