More than 90 per cent of members who cast a ballot in the Dalhousie University Faculty Association (DFA) strike vote said yes to strike action. According to the Oct. 6 DFA press release, this sends a clear message to the Dalhousie board of governors that the DFA “will not accept their demands for unreasonable economic concessions on pensions and wages.”
The vote comes after the DFA filed for a conciliator on Sept. 22 to help bring the two sides closer together on the negotiations for a new collective agreement. The DFA is the certified bargaining agent for more than 950 professors, instructors, librarians and professional counsellors at Dal. In total, 86.7 per cent of their members took part in the vote.
“The employer needs to know that these issues are not acceptable to our members, and they’re prepared to strike over it if necessary,” DFA President David Westwood said in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette.
Dalhousie Student Union President Maddie Stinson hopes the two sides can come to an agreement. She said a situation where students “potentially have to go to school for longer to get their credits is really not what we want to see this year.”
“We will be attempting to convey that concern to both parties and really just urge them to think about the consequences of these actions should a strike occur,” Stinson said.
Why the sides are so far apart
Westwood said the contention began when the board of governors made their first set of demands in June. They proposed 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. The final request, which Westwood said was most upsetting for DFA members, was to alter the pension plan meaning professors would receive less money when they retire.
The university presented these demands in the context of an estimate made in June that enrolment would decrease by 29 per cent due to COVID-19, which would leave the university with an $18 million deficit in their operating budget, requiring faculty to make large concessions on pay. Dal and the DFA have since learned enrolment actually increased by around three per cent.
“The entire financial reality was nothing like what the university proposed initially. So we said, ‘Well obviously they’re going to pull back on all these crazy demands they want from us,’ and they didn’t,” Westwood said. The demands have changed only marginally, “even though this doom and gloom scenario is nothing like reality anymore,” said Westwood.
Dal’s latest offer
In the most current offer, Dal has removed the five per cent wage decrease and two-year freeze of regularly scheduled wage increases. Instead, they propose a three-year freeze of inflation increases on faculty salary. However, no changes were made to the pension adjustment.
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. According to Westwood, the board of governors believes the indexing plan is too generous.
“So what they say is, ‘We need to reduce the likelihood of paying that indexing to retirees because it’s costing us too much money, and we want to use money for other things,’ presumably hiring more administrators and building more buildings,” Westwood said. According to him, the board of governors has been trying to adjust this aspect of the pension for many years.
The negotiations have only exacerbated the stress of professors struggling to teach virtual courses, said Westwood.
“They are burned out already, and we’re not even through September. These people are just giving their lifeblood to this job,” Westwood said. “Meanwhile, the employer is at the table saying, ‘Oh, thanks for all the work, but we’re going to need some money back.’”
A chronology of the negotiations
The previous agreement between Dal and the DFA expired on June 30. In preparation for that date, the DFA spent the year consulting with its members and developing bargaining priorities. Then, three days before the DFA planned to present their marketing packets to members for this year’s negotiations, Dal campus was shut down due to COVID-19.
When it became apparent COVID-19 would affect the fall term, the DFA was open to delaying negotiations.
“We said to the [board of governors], ‘Listen, if you’re uncertain about the numbers and the finances, let’s not bargain in that context because nobody is going to have a good outcome,” said Westwood. “So we said, ‘We will agree to not start arguing until a year from now. Let’s kind of let COVID happen. . . and let’s come back in two years’ time.”
Instead of postponing negotiations, the board of governor’s summoned Westwood and other teaching unions into a meeting to explain the university’s “financial reality,” Westwood said. This is when the board of governors presented their predicted enrolment decrease of 29 per cent.
After this was proven false and the board of governors updated their demands, which were presented to the DFA on Sept. 18, the DFA made their decision to file for conciliation on Sept. 22.
“They’re still coming at us, this time asking for unacceptable changes to long-term retirement benefits and wages that will have a lifetime impact on people,” Westwood said. “At that point, we said we need to file for conciliation.”
Appointed by the provincial government, the conciliator is Peter Lloyd. Lloyd was previously appointed as the conciliator between the DFA and Dal in 2018, which Westwood says is advantageous.
“He’s aware of some of the issues that were at the table last time, including versions of this pension change. So, I think that maybe allows him to step in and sort of come up to speed a little quicker than somebody else might,” Westwood said.
Dalhousie declined to provide the Gazette with an interview on this issue, but university spokesperson Janet Bryson said in email that a strike vote is a common step leading into conciliation and the university is “optimistic that an agreement can be reached that satisfies everyone.”
Verity Turpin, Dal’s acting vice-provost of student affairs, sent an email out to students on Oct. 14 saying the university is taking DFA negotiations seriously and is “committed to working with all [its] employee groups.”
Dal will post updates on DFA negotiations on its Labour Relations website.
Conciliation dates have been set for Oct. 19 and 22.