University of Lethbridge strike hits second week, labour expert partly blames province for impasse

Faculty remain on strike at the University of Lethbridge, and a labour relations professor from Athabasca University says the ongoing contract disputes across Alberta at the post-secondary level could be tied to legislation brought forward by the provincial government in 2019.

Provincial directives could be delaying collective bargaining talks, says Bob Barnetson

Faculty have been on strike and students out of classes at the University of Lethbridge for over a week. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Classes remain suspended at the University of Lethbridge as faculty pass the one-week mark since their strike began, and a labour professor in Alberta believes provincial directives could be stalling negotiations.

Faculty officially began their strike on Feb. 10, eight days ago, after being without a collective agreement for nearly 600 days.

Labour relations professor Bob Barnetson says the ongoing contract disputes across the province at the post-secondary level could be tied to legislation brought forward by the provincial government in 2019.

"I think what we're seeing is a series of negotiations that all come close to impasse or reaching impasse, in large part because the provincial government is interfering in collective bargaining," said Barnetson, who works at Athabasca University.

In October 2019, the United Conservative government introduced the Public Sector Employers Act as part of Bill 21. This gives the minister of finance the ability to give directives on collective bargaining, which includes term and fiscal limits.

"They've had their hands tied by the provincial government, so really the only outcome of this is going to be some kind of labour dispute," said Barnetson, who noted those directives are not public knowledge.

A labour professor says the ongoing contract dispute could be tied to provincial government involvement in the bargaining process. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

When asked about Bill 21 and its impact during negotiations, university administration replied in an email that students were the priority and the administration was acting autonomously.

"Our board is an autonomous governing body that ensures high-quality educational experiences at the University of Lethbridge," the statement reads.

"Our board is responsible for making independent decisions that protect the investments students are making, preserve the value of their education and future sustainability of the university."

The statement went on to say the university has to weigh "affordability for students against our available budget."

Nicolaides: It's up to faculty, administration

At a news conference Thursday, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said negotiations are mainly the responsibility of faculty and administration, not his office.

"I think it's important context to remember that collective bargaining occurs primarily between the board of governors of the post-secondary institution itself, who has the authority and the responsibility to manage the affairs and operations of the institution and the faculty association."

He went on to say he "remains hopeful" that a solution can be agreed upon.

When asked via email about the impact of post-secondary funding cuts and the potential use of Bill 21 in bargaining, the minister did not respond. 

"We share students' concerns about the possibilities of a delayed semester, which is why we are encouraging both parties work together at the bargaining table and create a deal that is fair to faculty members, a reflection of the fiscal realities in the province, but also in consideration of the impacts of a strike on student learning," a statement from the office reads.

Student union, faculty express concern

If the provincial government has given direction within bargaining, that's important to know, says students' union president Holly Kletke.

"It would be something that I want to know just so the government can acknowledge responsibility," she said.

Kletke also says budget cuts to post-secondary education have exacerbated contract negotiations and added stress to students.

The university had its base funding slashed by about 12 per cent between 2020 and 2022, amounting to more than $12 million. The University of Lethbridge is among a large group of post-secondaries in the province that have had their funding cut since 2019.

Joy Morris, who is a professor on the faculty negotiating team, says not knowing whether there are other directives at play adds a layer of difficulty to negotiations.

"It certainly seems pretty clear that they are working within guidelines and mandates that have been set by the government," she said.

She says it's most important that those in the university sector reject the widespread post-secondary cuts that are being felt across Alberta.

"Boards and unions and support staff and students need to present a united front back to the government explaining why this isn't acceptable and why this is not going to actually achieve the level of educational programming that they want to see within the province of Alberta."

With files from Janet French