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Dalhousie postdoctoral fellows prepared to strike if wage demands are not met

Postdoctoral fellows have been without a contract since December 2021

Members of the union representing postdoctoral fellows at Dalhousie University have voted to strike if the university administration fails to meet their demands for fair wages. 

Public Service Alliance of Canada’s Local 86001 members rejected Dalhousie administration’s final offer in its latest round of negotiations. Members voted to strike if the university does not implement wage increases that are comparable to postdoctoral fellows at other Canadian universities and relatively equal to wage increases seen by other Dalhousie employees.

The local bargaining unit representing the postdoctoral fellows is seeking annual wage increases of 4.5 per cent but compromised to 3 and 2.5 per cent in negotiations.

Robyn Wright, president of the Dalhousie Postdoctoral Society and co-president of PSAC Local 86001, said the unit is frustrated with Dalhousie’s refusal to offer yearly wage increases comparable to those of other employee groups. 

“What we’re asking for is basically just what other employees have,” she said.

If postdoctoral fellows represented by the local unit move to strike, it will not be until after their next meeting with the Dalhousie administration on Jan. 26. 

According to Wright, the university contacted the local unit immediately upon hearing of their strike mandate.

Dalhousie’s response

In a statement to the Dalhousie Gazette, Janet Bryson, Dalhousie’s director of strategic communications and media relations, said the university and the union have agreed to delay any labour disruptions until after the next round of negotiations.

“The university remains optimistic that we will be able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution,” the statement said.

The Gazette also reached out to Dalhousie President and Vice-Chancellor Kim Brooks but did not receive a response.

The approximately 130 postdoctoral fellows employed by Dalhousie have been without a contract since December 2021.

Postdoctoral fellows at Dalhousie perform research across several disciplines in areas such as cancer treatment, batteries for e-bikes and drug development. They also assist undergraduate and graduate students in labs and can act as a direct contact for students in labs.

According to Wright, the “overwhelming majority” of union members voted in favour of striking if Dalhousie could not meet their demands.

The university and the local bargaining unit have come to agreements on most non-monetary issues, including contract lengths, but have struggled to find common ground on monetary issues such as salaries and wage increases, according to Wright.

“Dal relies on their international research reputation, which is driven by postdocs,” said Wright. “If they want to maintain that then they have plenty of money they could put into our salaries.”

Wright said the university has proposed one and 1.5 per cent wage increases for 2024 and 2025, respectively, but that these increases are not comparable to those of other Dalhousie employees, who typically see increases of 2.5 to three per cent.

PSAC Local 86001 members are also seeking an increase in starting salaries. Many postdoctoral fellows are taking pay cuts when comparing their current salaries to the funds they received from scholarships during their postgraduate studies, according to Wright.

Postdoctoral fellows at Dalhousie currently make a base salary of $38,500, equivalent to $18.51 per hour, well below the living wage in Halifax which sits at $26.50 per hour.

The bargaining unit compromised on their initial proposals by proposing starting salaries of $45,000 for 2023, $48,000 for 2024 and $50,000 for 2025, but Dalhousie rejected these proposals, returning with lower proposed starting salaries and no increases for 2022 and 2023.

“We’re not asking for something that is unreasonable or that they wouldn’t be able to afford,” said Wright. “The difference that that an additional $10,000 a year would make to someone that’s currently earning $38,500 is crazy.”

How will students be affected?

Wright said a potential strike would not directly affect classes, as instructors, markers and teaching assistants work under a different collective agreement, but that some of the postdoctoral fellows’ workload could fall onto professors.

“It might mean they have a lot less time for the classes that they’re teaching if they need to specifically teach their master’s students or tend to their undergraduate students doing a research placement in a lab,” said Wright. “As well, there’s the students we work with on a daily basis.”

According to Wright, the negotiations with Dalhousie administration are about ensuring fair wages for current and future postdoctoral fellows.

“For PhD students, anything that we’re able to negotiate will benefit those that are looking to do a postdoc next,” said Wright.

PSAC Local 86001 and Dalhousie administration will return to negotiations on Jan. 26 looking to secure a deal that could prevent a strike.

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