Striking UPEI faculty walk picket lines as students wonder about fate of semester
The two sides had been negotiating since April with little progress
Faculty members at the University of Prince Edward Island are off the job after a strike deadline passed in an ongoing dispute with the university over a new collective agreement.
"We'd rather have a deal. We'd rather not be here. But to see people out, fighting for what they believe in, and fighting for this institution, I'm just incredibly proud of these people," Mike Arfken, president of the UPEI Faculty Association, said from the picket line at the Charlottetown institution on Monday morning.
The strike comes after the UPEI Faculty Association's members voted in February to authorize the executive committee to walk out if necessary.
At the time, the union said a strike wouldn't be triggered until after the Canada Winter Games wrapped up, which happened March 5.
"It's going to drag on until we've negotiated a settlement," said Arfken. "Right now, with the employer refusing to even meet with us, who knows?
"But that's what we're here for, and that's what we're going to wait until."
The union has said the primary sticking points at the bargaining table have been workload, improved health and safety, higher pay, and the hiring of more full-time faculty members to cope with a growing student body.
The faculty association notes that tuition fees and investments in the university have both increased in recent years, but the number of teaching positions has stayed the same.
Admin wants interest arbitration
For its part, the university said in a March 1 statement that "very limited progress" had been made in recent negotiations, adding that during the last round of talks, just five of 113 outstanding issues were resolved.
This strike comes with just a month to go before final exams were due to start. At this point, a representative from the administration said, university managers haven't made any decisions about whether to extend the semester.
"We could end this strike immediately if both parties were to agree with interest arbitration. That's what we're proposing. That's what we hope can happen," Greg Naterer, vice president of academic and research for UPEI, told CBC News on Monday.
"It would provide us the help and assistance of a third-party mediator to take us through that process. It could happen immediately."
Timing tough, students say
The timing of this strike, so close to the end of the semester, makes it especially tough for graduating students and those from other countries, said Adam MacKenzie, the president of the UPEI Student Union.
"Obviously there are issues with study permits. If they have to pay an extra month's rent, that's going to be tough for a lot of them. There's also the concern of a lot of international students [who] have very expensive travel tickets booked to head home after this semester," MacKenzie said Monday.
The university has promised to send updates to students, staff and faculty as information becomes available.
"Front and centre, it's in students' interest to be able to finish in a timely way, so that they don't lose an academic semester," said Naterer. "But … we don't know how long this is going to go on."
The faculty association's previous collective agreement with the university had been set to expire on July 1, 2020, but the parties signed a two-year extension that expired in June 2022.
The two sides had been at the bargaining table since April 2022, and met 20 times between April 21 and Aug. 4, but made little progress toward a resolution.
In August, the union asked the province to appoint a conciliator to oversee negotiations — a move the university opposed. In November, the union asked the minister to bring conciliation talks to a close, with the university arguing the talks should continue.
With files from Steve Bruce and Gabrielle Drumond