Classes cancelled at University of Lethbridge as faculty go on strike

At 11 a.m., a faculty strike officially began, after discussions over a faculty collective agreement between their bargaining committee and administration met another impasse.

'We think this is just a sad day,' says faculty association president

Faculty gathered to organize in front of the picket line on the University of Lethbridge campus. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

University of Lethbridge faculty gathered in clusters along a roadway that runs around the edge of campus Thursday morning. Vehicles drove by, some honking in support as faculty members cheered and waved in response.

At 11 a.m., a faculty strike officially began, after discussions over a faculty collective agreement between their bargaining committee and administration hit another impasse.

"We've tried all kinds of things, creative ways, different perspectives, to get an agreement and it just hasn't worked," said Locke Spencer, lead negotiator for the faculty bargaining team and a professor at the university. 

"So here we are, another tool in the toolbox trying to get a collective agreement."

Both sides met at the table again Thursday morning but couldn't reconcile, leaving nearly 9,000 students without classes, and faculty off work, until the situation is resolved.

Locke Spencer is a professor and the lead negotiator for the faculty bargaining team. He says they've tried what they can to avoid the strike, but were out of options. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

"We think this is just a sad day, we've been trying for two years to reach an agreement," said Dan O'Donnell, University of Lethbridge Faculty Association president. 

O'Donnell says he hopes the strike is short and that a resolution can be reached. 

In a statement Thursday, the university said it is ready to resume negotiations but the faculty association's raise demand is unreasonable.

"The university looks forward to resuming negotiations with ULFA soon, and to discussing more reasonable positions than ULFA's demand for 12 per cent raises," they said in a statement. 

"This is three times the salary increase recently awarded to Alberta's front-line nurses, and not sustainable to the university nor affordable for our students."

The faculty association says this is untrue, it was based on their initial offer from two years ago that called for an average of three per cent increases each year over the four-year contract.

"To indicate that we are holding firm on a 12 per cent offer is completely disingenuous," the faculty said in a statement Friday.

The association's most recent offer of settlement "asked for roughly the equivalent of five per cent in total over four years."

They added that their offer to settle asked for one per cent above the administration's salary offer.

The faculty have repeatedly said their compensation is up to 17 per cent behind that of comparable universities and does not account for inflation.

"Our administration is getting a 15 per cent discount on market value for our membership," said Spencer.

"But that's just part of it. There's workload issues, there's equity issues … and there's essentially respect."

Part of their push in negotiations is to have representation on the university budget advisory committee. They are also asking that a committee be set up evaluating faculty benefits.

Faculty have been without a collective agreement for 590 days. On Friday at 11 a.m. a lockout will be enacted by the university, barring faculty members from all workplaces.

Amy Mendenhall, a fourth year Indigenous studies student, says after a tough two years through which her professors supported her, she's outside with them to return the favour. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Student support

Fourth year student Amy Mendenhall was at the picket line Thursday morning. She helped organize a rally in support of faculty prior to the strike, and supports their move to cease work.

"I am a disability student and the last two years have been a complete nightmare. Most people would be dropping out. It hasn't been administration or anyone else reaching out to us, it's been our faculty," she said.

The University said it has come up with plans "to help mitigate impacts and support students" that it will share throughout the strike.

In a statement, the students' union shared concern over the move to strike Thursday.

"We are disheartened by the disruption of classes, especially considering the challenges of the past two years," it said, going on to list hardships like tuition increases and a shift to online-based learning.

"We refuse to let any party weaponize student emotions and fears for their gain."

Other institutions facing similar disputes

The University of Lethbridge is the second post-secondary institution to have faculty go on strike this year in Alberta. 

Faculty at Concordia University went on strike in early January before coming to an agreement 11 days later. 

Concordia's strike was a first for faculty associations in the province.

Currently, Mount Royal University, University of Alberta and Athabasca University are also negotiating collective agreements. Both Mount Royal University and the University of Alberta have entered formal mediation.