Nfld. & Labrador

MUN students worry as teaching staff put in strike vote position

After conciliation talks failed between Memorial University and two of its teaching unions, both are in a position to vote to strike.

Conciliation talks fail between MUN, unions representing instructors and faculty

Two unions representing instructors at Memorial University are in a position to vote to strike. (CBC)

Conciliation talks between Memorial University of Newfoundland and two unions representing its instructors have failed, putting both unions in position to take a strike vote.

The union representing MUN's per-course instructors will be taking that vote this week, while the union representing the university's faculty is still figuring out its next steps.

Meanwhile, the university's student union is fielding "hundreds" of calls from students worried about possible strikes.

"If the employer doesn't come back to the table once we get our strong strike mandate — if they don't back willing to move on their final offer, then [our] members are going to have to move to take job action," said Martha Wells, head of the Lecturers' Union of Memorial University of Newfoundland (LUMUN), which represents per-course instructors and postdoctoral fellows.

We have the lowest (pay) rates per course in the country.- Martha Wells

The union has been in negotiations with the university since April 2017, with its main asks being better pay for instructors, including a percentage of pay in lieu of a pension and a fund in lieu of benefits, Wells said.

After a "cooling down" process ended November 23 following an unsuccessful conciliation process, Wells said the university told the union they "might be willing to go back to the table with us but only if we have a strike mandate."

The university's undergraduate student union is getting hundreds of calls from students worried about a strike, says a union official. (CBC)

In the coming days, the union will be having strike votes for its members in order to secure that mandate, she said.

"We are among the most precarious workers in the university," she said, adding: "I am among those instructors who've been teaching here more than a decade without a pension plan and without benefits."

On MUN's current pay scale, a per-course instructor "lucky enough" to get six courses a year, or two courses per semester, makes an annual wage between $30,000 and $32,100, she said.

"We have the lowest rates per course in the country," she said.

That wage is between 46 and 63 per cent lower, per course, than the wages members of the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (MUNFA) take home, she said.

"And they have health benefits."

'Nobody wants disruption'

But MUNFA is also at loggerheads with the university, according to president Robin Whitaker.

The cooling period following that union's unsuccessful conciliation process ended Saturday, she said, and now the union is legally able to vote to strike or the university could opt to lock them out of their jobs.

"Obviously, we want the process to work. Nobody wants disruption. We're very concerned about our students, that's the bottom line for us," Whitaker told the St. John's Morning Show on Monday.

Robin Whitaker is the president of Memorial University's faculty association. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Many of MUN's faculty members are contract instructors, said Travis Perry, the union's communications coordinator, and their contracts can be from anywhere between 4 months to three years.

Though they are salaried, he said instructors on short contracts often find themselves having to reapply for their jobs multiple times a year, facing regular and prolonged bouts of instability and uncertainty in their employment.

Many of these contract instructors bounce back and forth between the two unions, depending on the teaching gigs they've managed to secure, he said.

"Some of them have been at the university for 15 or 20 years and they have no job security," Robin Whitaker said.

Almost at agreement

Whitaker said the union and the university were very close to an agreement in October, save for one "sticking point" on MUNFA's side: a seniority-based right of first refusal for those workers.

"It's not a money item," she said. "We had actually agreed to a wage freeze for three years so we were puzzled as to why the university wouldn't agree to this one last item."

Some (staff) have been at the university for 15 or 20 years and they have no job security.- Robin Whitaker, MUNFA president

MUN had offered to consider the right of first refusal in exchange for a concession from MUNFA, such as a four-year wage freeze or post-tenure review, which would subject tenured faculty to regular employment reviews.

"That was not acceptable to us," she said, adding that it would effectively put those staff members on a "perpetual probationary period" and undermine academic freedom at the university.

MUNFA will be discussing how to respond with its members in the coming days, she said.

Hundreds of calls from students

Bailey Howard, director of external affairs with the university's undergraduate student union, said hundreds of students have been phoning the union asking what will happen if instructors go on strike.

MUNSU's Bailey Howard says students are worried about possible strikes. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Students slated to graduate this winter are particularly concerned their graduation dates will be pushed ahead by a strike, she said.

Howard said MUNSU will be meeting soon to determine its official position on the disputes.

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