Conciliation talks between the Dalhousie University Faculty Association (DFA) and Dal’s board of governors failed on their first day, according to a DFA press release on Oct. 19. In an email sent to students the same day from Frank Harvey, provost and acting vice-president academic, and Jasmine Walsh, assistant vice-president of human resources, Dal says the conciliator has asked the sides to meet again on Nov. 3.
DFA President Dave Westwood says that email from Dal sent the wrong message to students.
“The way the board portrayed this is misleading. Conciliation has failed. It’s over,” he said in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette.
When the two sides meet to discuss on Nov. 3, it will be two days before the DFA can legally take job action, that is strike. A strike will only be possible on Nov. 5 at the earliest because there is a 14-day waiting period after the provincial conciliator, Peter Lloyd, files his report on the negotiations with the minister of labour and advanced education.
“So the countdown has started, from the moment [the conciliator] files that report, which he told us he will do on [Oct. 22],” said Westwood.
Dalhousie declined to provide the Gazette with an interview on this issue, but university spokesperson Janet Bryson said in email that “the university intends to use the time at the table on [Nov. 3] productively.” Bryson continued to say, “We recognize that no one within our community wants a strike and our hope is that through continued, active dialogue we can reach an agreement.”
In their email to students, Dal says they are committed to students and will do everything possible to properly end the academic term.
“It won’t come to an end. It will come to a very crashing halt and it will be hugely disruptive for everybody,” Westwood said. “Students need to understand that.”
“The university certainly agrees that job action would be disruptive to the lives of Dal students and our community,” Bryson told the Gazette by email. “No matter what happens the university will do everything we can to ensure that our students have an opportunity to complete the term.”
Dalhousie Student Union President Maddie Stinson says the union exists to support students and right now that means supporting the DFA.
“Ultimately, the faculty’s working conditions are our learning conditions and so we are urging the university to support students through approaching negotiations in good faith,” Stinson told the Gazette by text message.
Why conciliation failed
The talks reached an impasse over the same issue a conciliator was brought in for: the restructuring of the pension plan.
The DFA has a defined benefit pension plan, meaning when a DFA member retires they are given a lump sum of money. The plan has an indexing provision to ensure the sum increases relative to inflation. This is what Dal wants to adjust.
In Dal’s email to students they said, “the reforms to protect the long-term sustainability of our defined-benefit pension plan — deserve more time at the table.”
Additionally, Bryson said the university is open to further discussion on this issue prior to the Nov. 3 meeting.
Westwood says this issue won’t be solved by more time at the table. There’s no middle ground.
“Either you restructure the pension or you don’t,” he said. If that issue is removed from the bargaining discussion, “we could probably hammer [the deal] out in two hours,” Westwood said.
Dal’s offer in the Oct. 19 conciliation meeting hadn’t changed much since bargaining began in June, said Westwood. The original demands included a five per cent wage decrease for the first year of the three-year contract, followed by a two-year freeze of regular wage increases and wage adjustments for inflation, as well as the restructuring of the pension plan.
Those demands were based on an estimate Dal made that enrollment would drop significantly due to COVID-19. It is now known enrolment actually increased. In light of this, the DFA expected the board would pull back on their demands in September, but this never happened, according to Westwood.
Prior to the Oct. 19 meeting, Dal adjusted their offer, proposing a three-year freeze of inflation increases on faculty salary. However, the pension restructuring remained.
On Oct. 19, Dal offered a two-year wage increase of 0.25 per cent as the only change; a decision on wage changes for the third year of the contract will be made at a later date.
DFA says this should have been avoided
On May 26, when the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the coming school year were becoming apparent, Westwood sent a letter to Dal President Deep Saini. He suggested the DFA and board of governors wait until May 2021 at the earliest to discuss the new contract, as the DFA understood Dal faced an uncertain financial future. Instead, the board wished to begin negotiations.
When the board made the decision to bargain this year, they were aware that bringing the pension issue to the table would cause problems, Westwood said.
“The board knows this. It’s 20 years we’ve been telling them we’re not accepting that proposal, and it’s always been a strike issue and always will be,” Westwood said.
“We have offered them every opportunity to avoid this. They’re the ones who are pushing the gas pedal on this situation and being completely belligerent, belittling, and disrespectful to faculty members and retirees, and it’s all unnecessary,” Westwood said.
The board’s decision to leave the pension demand unchanged, while aware the DFA will not concede to the demand, has worsened the negative impacts of COVID-19 on the Dal community, says Westwood.
“Students are stressed and they’re starting to break. Faculty are starting to break. I’m getting emails from parents now that are concerned about the mental health of their students if the strike happens,” he said.
What if a strike happens?
On Nov. 5, Dal professors and instructors could stop teaching their courses. In an email to the students on Oct. 21, the University of King’s College vice-president Peter O’Brien said the university is developing a contingency plan and “information will be shared with King’s students as soon as it is available.”
According to Westwood, it will be difficult to prepare for a strike as professors are bound to their syllabi and cannot adjust evaluation dates without a majority vote from students.
“I think that’s hard to imagine, in this day, where people are just struggling day-to-day to just get through their courses,” he said.
Board of governors chair steps down
Amidst the ongoing negotiations Dal announced on Oct. 21 the chair of the university’s board of governors, Candace Thomas, has stepped down from her position.
According to Westwood, this won’t have a direct effect on the bargaining negotiations between the board and the DFA.
Thomas has been a member of the board since 2011, holding the position of chair since 2019.
Her decision to step down comes after the provincial government appointed her in April as deputy minister of the department of justice, deputy attorney general and deputy minister of the office of social innovation and integrative approaches, which “made juggling her Dalhousie responsibilities simply too much all at once,” according to Dal’s website.
Thomas will remain on the board until the end of 2020 to aid in the transition period. The current vice-chair, Bob Hanf, will take over as interim chair until the board fills the seat.