Unions criticize Dalhousie University for asking for 5% wage cut
School faces a $30.5-million deficit for the 2020-21 year
Dalhousie University is asking unionized staff members to take pay cuts as the school grapples with financial stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Westwood, president of the Dalhousie Faculty Association, says they've just started the collective bargaining process for next year, and one of the proposals made to the association was a five per cent wage cut.
While Westwood said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to job losses and layoffs in a number of sectors, he said the higher education sector is in an unusual situation.
He said the workload of some members has doubled because they've had to change the nature of their work at a moment's notice and move it all online.
"The prospect of a wage rollback at a time where we're doing more work rather than less work is something our members would find a bit troublesome, to say the least," Westwood said.
Dalhousie has already announced measures to cut costs such as freezing salaries for senior leaders. Staff compensation makes up nearly three-quarters of the school's expenses.
A tighter timeline
Contracts for members of the DFA are in effect until the end of June. The DFA represents approximately 1,000 Dalhousie employees, mostly faculty, librarians, and counsellors.
Westwood said in a typical year, the union and the school would typically talk through the summer months and do much of the bargaining in the fall, once they have a better understanding of the budget and their enrolment numbers.
But this year, he said the timeline is tighter and the school would like to wrap up bargaining by the end of the summer.
"Even though there's a lot of uncertainty, they seem in more of a hurry than usual to get things done," said Westwood.
"We'd obviously prefer to wait and see the numbers. We don't want students caught in the middle of any kind of contract negotiation difficulty … it's difficult enough for these students being asked to pay higher fees."
The timeline is also an issue for Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. The NSGEU represents approximately 1,400 employees at Dalhousie's campuses, mostly made up of support staff, facility staff and tradespeople.
He said the bargaining process takes time because they usually survey their members on what kind of issues they're facing and what improvements they'd like to see.
"You don't set parameters on bargaining," he said. "It's something that our members put a lot of preparation and time into."
MacLean said he was told about the proposed pay cut, as well as a proposal to claw back pensions, during a presentation last week from Dalhousie.
"We're not agreeing to any of that," he said.
Dalhousie facing $30.5M deficit
In an email, Dalhousie spokesperson Janet Bryson said the school's fiscal update, which was released on June 23 in place of the actual budget that would normally be released around this time, projects a $30.5 million shortfall for the 2020-21 school year.
"The fiscal update reflects the unprecedented degree of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the university, particularly around student enrolment and tuition revenue," Bryson wrote.
"It will support the university's budget planning through the summer and fall, until the university can determine a clearer picture of our overall financial situation and the Board can approve a complete operating budget plan."
The fiscal update said the university would use $12.2 million in available reserve funds to reduce the operating deficit to $18.3 million.
Bryson said the school is still working on contract negotiations.
"Dalhousie's goal is to remain focused on delivering our academic mission, to support all of our people through this difficult time and to continually work to avoid more significant job-related impacts by reviewing additional cost savings measures across the institution in a fair and balanced way," the email said.
Fears of layoffs
The president of CUPE Local 3912, which represents part-time instructors at Saint Mary's University, Mount Saint Vincent University and Dalhousie University, is concerned about the impact cost-cutting measures could have on part-time staff.
The union local represents about 300 part-time instructors and 1,000 teaching assistants and markers at Dalhousie.
Karen Harper said CUPE's collective agreement doesn't run out until the end of August, so they haven't begun bargaining yet. But she said members are concerned about potential course cancellations, which could lead to lost jobs.
"I'm not too worried about the five per cent decrease in our salary, because I think they're going to decrease the salary of part-time instructors probably more through course cancellations," she said.
Administrators at Mount Saint Vincent University recently directed department heads to cut 30 per cent from salary budgets for part-time faculty for the fall semester — which could lead to about 100 lost jobs, according to a coalition of university unions that recently asked for government aid to avoid job cuts and tuition hikes.
The Department of Labour and Advanced Education could not provide a comment in time for publication, but Minister Labi Kousoulis recently said following a cabinet meeting that it was too soon to consider providing additional funding for universities, and they'd take a closer look once schools have a sense of their enrolment.
SMU bracing for financial losses
In a letter sent out to Saint Mary's University staff Thursday, president and vice-chancellor Robert Summerby-Murray said the school is bracing for a decline in enrolment, especially among international students.
"We are preparing for a decrease of in the range of $30 million in tuition revenue, which does not include residence and other ancillary fees and revenue," the letter said.
It said the school has begun cutting costs by reducing non-salary operating expenses by 25 per cent, suspending all university travel, freezing the salaries for some staff members, discussing future options with unionized employee groups and issuing layoffs when necessary.
The letter did not say how many layoffs were issued.
It also said the school was taking a number of steps to support staff and students, including hiring extra staff to help support the transition to online classes and introducing a student team of peer coaches to support students.
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