University of Alberta, academic staff enter formal mediation after negotiations stall

Mandatory mediation between the University of Alberta and its academic staff association is set to begin Friday against the backdrop of a possible strike.

No desire to force strike action, U of A's bargaining committee says

Formal mediation between the University of Alberta and its academic staff association will begin Friday. (David Bajer/CBC)

Mandatory mediation between the University of Alberta and its academic staff association is set to begin Friday against the backdrop of a possible strike.

The U of A and the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta (AASUA) — Canada's largest academic staff association — will begin formal mediation talks on Friday. 

If mediation efforts fail, the association can apply to the Alberta Labour Relations Board for a supervised strike vote, following a 14-day cooling-off period.

Sweeping cuts to post-secondary spending by the provincial government have contributed to an unprecedented wave of labour unrest among academic staff across the province, AASUA president Tim Mills said Thursday. 

In January, Concordia University of Edmonton saw Alberta's first faculty strike. Faculty at the University of Lethbridge are currently on strike after walking off the job last week. Faculty and administration at Mount Royal University reached an agreement in principle this week after more than 22 months of contract negotiations triggered mediation.

"The provincial government is partially responsible for the labour disruption we see in Lethbridge, and the uncertainty that we see here at the U of A," Mills said in an interview.

The U of A had its provincial base operating funding slashed by nearly 19 per cent during the past two years, and was the hardest hit by the United Conservative Party government's funding cuts to Alberta's post-secondary institutions.

The university and its academic staff association have been bargaining since 2020 but have yet to find a resolution after 35 formal negotiation sessions. The previous collective agreement expired on June 30, 2020.

Sticking points include compensation, job security for "very precariously employed" members and proposed changes to the academic pension plan, Mills said.

The association's 3,780 members have gone four years without a wage increase, he said.

The association is calling for a 2.25 per cent pay increase this July, 2.5 per cent in 2023, and another increase of up to 0.5 per cent, retroactive to July 1, 2023, to be paid in February 2024.

If the AASUA's calls for increased compensation are met, it would cost the university an additional $35 million over the remaining two years of the proposed four-year collective agreement, the association said. 

"The employer is saying 'no' to a cost-of-living increase and they're proposing changes that will end up gutting our benefits plan and reducing pension benefits for some of our members," Mills said. 

"That's the gulf that we have. We want job security, we want some kind of competitive wages. And they're not really interested in advancing either of those."

Tim Mills, president of the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta, says compensation remains the biggest sticking point in negotiations. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

On Jan. 27, the university proposed voluntary mediation. The following week, after another failed round of negotiations, the association instead applied for formal mediation.

Mediation dates have been scheduled for Feb. 18 and Feb. 25.

Strike 'avoidable,' university says 

In a statement last week, the U of A's bargaining committee said it remains committed to finding a compromise and that a resolution "should be achievable."

"As the parties enter into mediation, there is a significant gap between salary proposals (0 per cent vs. 5.25 per cent), and an even more significant gap between the overall compensation-related proposals," the committee said in a statement.

"Despite these gaps, we are embarking into mediation with a clear intention to negotiate further."

In an update posted online, the bargaining committee said a strike is not imminent but cautions that any labour disruption would have a significant impact on campus. 

"The university has no ability or desire to 'force' any such action. We believe a strike is not in the best interests of our students, academic and other staff, and the university – and is avoidable." 

All classes and research by AASUA employees will stop if the association opts to strike. Even a strike of a week or two would require changes to the academic schedule, the university said.

"The university remains fully committed to negotiating an agreement with AASUA that is fair, equitable, responsible and sustainable given the serious economic constraints the university faces. 

"The university is taking this process seriously and will not end mediation prematurely, recognizing that doing so would further escalate the situation towards labour disruption." 

'Something we can live with'

Mills said the association is prepared to take a "strong stance" if the university fails to compromise.

"We're really hopeful that we can negotiate something," he said. "It won't be something that either of us will be happy with, but something we can live with and really save the semester for our students."

The U of A Students' Union is staging a march to the Alberta Legislature on Thursday to call for increased funding from the provincial government.

The cuts imposed by the province have been incredibly damaging, said Rowan Ley, president of the student union during Thursday's march.

He says the quality of education is suffering and the situation will only get worse unless funding is restored. 

"Cuts are at the root of all the problems that the U of A has experienced in the last three years," he said.

"The aggressive restructuring which has resulted in thousands of layoffs and has happened too quickly, leaving a lot of students and staff in the lurch, that's a direct result." 

Students remain hopeful that a "fair agreement" can be reached between the university and the staff association, Ley said. 

"A strike, for all parties, is obviously a last resort," he said.