Could UPEI faculty be forced back to work? Not during an election campaign
Party leaders weigh in on use of back-to-work legislation if they form government
With University of Prince Edward Island faculty striking in the middle of a provincial election campaign, one thing is certain: There's no way they can be forced back to work through legislation in the next few weeks.
Their union wants a guarantee that won't change after the April 3 election, if its members are still on the picket line.
"What we're calling on from whoever forms government next is 'Don't step in there and legislate us back to work,'" Mike Arfken, president of the UPEI Faculty Association, said Tuesday.
"That's what our employer is waiting for, and they're never going to come to the table if they know that's on the horizon. So, speak out now, speak out early, and make it clear that's not going to happen."
Negotiations or arbitration?
Faculty members took to the picket line at the Charlottetown campus on Monday, after nearly a year of failed negotiations with university managers over a new collective agreement.
The faculty association has asked for more in-person meetings to resume talks.
UPEI has said no, instead proposing that faculty agree to return to work while a third-party arbitrator is appointed to settle all outstanding issues.
"Because the province is in an election, the only way that we can enter a period of interest arbitration is if both sides agree," said Greg Naterer, UPEI's vice-president, academic and research. "If this was not in an election period, the legislature could convene to make this happen. But given we're in an election, that wouldn't."
'A last resort'
Naterer dismissed the union's claim that UPEI is dragging its feet in the hope that the new government will legislate faculty members back to work and force binding arbitration on them.
Speaking to CBC News on Tuesday, Progressive Conservative Leader Dennis King didn't rule that out as a possibility, if his party's re-elected and faculty are still on strike.
I think that's always a last resort.— PC Leader Dennis King, of legislating strikers back to work
"I think that's always a last resort," he said. "It wouldn't be my first initiative, obviously. I mean, as I say, I'm very [respectful] of the collective bargaining process."
"I think we would look at all elements," said Liberal Leader Sharon Cameron. "They have to continue the discussion, to bargain in good faith, and trust both sides will do their job. So you want to avoid any of those kinds of severe actions and make sure the discussion continues."'
'We would not legislate'
Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker and NDP Leader Michelle Neill, on the other hand, spoke out firmly against back-to-work legislation.
"Absolutely, we would not legislate these people back to work," said Bevan-Baker. "This is a tricky situation, but for government, they need to step back and allow the process to work out as it should."
"As government, I don't believe we should directly interfere with collective bargaining," said Neill. "That's something that's very near and dear to my heart. I've been a unionized member for a long, long time, and I believe that's something very sacred between union members and their employer."
The faculty strike began with just a month to go before final exams for most UPEI students. The university hasn't said at this point whether the semester could be extended to make up for classes that are missed.
Buildings on campus will remain open to non-faculty staff, students, and community members throughout the strike.
The faculty association has said its members will be respectful of people who need to cross their picket lines.