British Columbia

Faculty at UNBC on strike over 'rock-bottom' wages

Faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George, B.C., are on strike as of Thursday, after months of negotiations over "rock-bottom" wages broke down without an agreement.

Salaries at the centre of months-long negotiations, which broke down 3 days ago

Faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia stand on the picket line along University Way in Prince George, B.C., on Thursday. Staff are on strike after months-long bargaining over wages failed. (Catherine Hansen/CBC)

Faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George, B.C., began a staff strike Thursday morning after months of negotiations over wages broke down without an agreement, meaning no classes at the university for thousands of students.

This is the second faculty strike at UNBC in the past five years.

"The faculty association is disappointed to find our members on the picket line again, and remains committed to negotiation in a fair, sector-norm contract," said a release from the UNBC Faculty Association.

Staff served strike notice Monday after bargaining with university administration ended in deadlock. A tweet from the faculty association Thursday morning said the strike notice was met with "radio silence," forcing staff to the picket line.

Association vice-president Paul Siakuluk said staff are firm in their demands, but hoping for a quick resolution.

"I'm hopeful that it will not go on very long, that both sides can come to a fair agreement in the next few days ... but we're prepared to stay on the line as long as needed to get a fair deal," Siakuluk said in a phone call Thursday.

Communications about potential strike action have been sent to thousands of students.

There are no classes Thursday and transit buses are not crossing picket lines. Drivers are stopping instead at temporary stops on University Way. The library, dining hall and other non-academic student spaces will remain open, according to a statement from UNBC.

The association represents all teaching staff at the school. Wages for all teaching staff, from tenured faculty to librarians and contract instructors, are at the heart of the dispute. A previous statement from the association said current salaries are at the "rock-bottom" end of the spectrum.

Faculty at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George began a staff strike Thursday over an ongoing wage dispute with the school. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Samantha Legebokow's studies and sole income are both tied to the university. She's a third-year student in wildlife and fisheries biology and works as a barista at the on-campus coffee shop. Both roles are affected by the job action, as classes are affected and the cafe is closed for the duration of the strike.

Legebokow said she's on the teachers' side.

"UNBC is a world-renowned institution. We have some of the best research and education opportunities for a small university, especially in northern Canada, and the wages of our professors don't reflect that," said Legebokow, 20, who is from Revelstoke, B.C.

"If we aren't paying our professors good money, we aren't offering job stability. If we aren't offering job stability, how are we going to attract quality professors in the future? If the quality of the professors goes down, then the status of the school goes down," she added.

Both Samantha Legebokow's studies and job are being affected by the strike. (Nicole Oud/CBC)

Both faculty and university administrations met Monday morning in an effort to negotiate a solution. The university tabled an offer, but it was rejected.

"High-quality faculty are the backbone of our institution, and that's why, as a university, as the employer in this case, we are committed to a fair agreement with our faculty," UNBC president Daniel Weeks said Monday.

The bargaining began after a working group was created to compare salaries to those at other universities, such as the University of Lethbridge, Thompson Rivers University and Trent University in Ontario. 

"We have the lowest faculty wages among those universities," Siakuluk said Monday. 

More than 3,000 students were enrolled at UNBC in the 2015/16 school year. More than 225 full-time faculty were employed that year, as well as 145 part-time faculty and 446 non-academic staff.

With files from Yvette Brend, Nicole Oud and CBC's Radio West

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