Updated 3:40 pm, Oct. 21, 2020.
The Dalhousie Faculty Association and the Dalhousie Board of Governors reached an impasse on Oct. 19, their first day of conciliation, pushing us closer to a faculty strike.
The DFA represents most full-time faculty at Dal, as well as full-time professional librarians and counsellors. They have been in the midst of negotiating their next contract with Dal since their collective agreement ended on June 30.
The DFA originally offered in May to postpone negotiations for a year, so that neither side would have to bargain while still adjusting to the pandemic. The Board rejected that offer and insisted on negotiations.
In June, Dal offered the DFA a 3-year contract with a 5 per cent wage cut in year one, a wage freeze in year two, and asked for major changes to the Dalhousie Pension Plan. At the time, it predicted the university would face a $30.5 million drop in revenue from less students enrolling.
When it turned out that enrollment actually went up by 3.8 per cent since last year, they changed their offer to a zero per cent wage increase over three years, but kept asking for the pension changes. On Sept. 22, the DFA filed for conciliation, in hopes it would help bridge the gap between the two sides.
Both sides sent their best offers to each other through the conciliator, Peter Lloyd, who tried to help find a compromise. The session only lasted until around noon, when it became clear they could not reach an agreement.
DFA president David Westwood wasn’t surprised. He said the DFA went into conciliation with a list of 20 points and was willing to discuss 19 of them. They won’t budge on the restructuring of the pension. And that’s one thing the Board of Governors wouldn’t compromise on, the same as before conciliation started.
The Board of Governors is the highest decision making body at Dalhousie, responsible for areas like spending decisions, control of property, and contract negotiations.
“In a situation like that, a conciliator can try to bring a compromise or something. On this particular issue, I don’t really think there’s a compromise; it’s either one or the other because it’s a total restructuring of the pension plan that’s at stake,” said Westwood.
In an email to students sent on Oct. 19, the Board called changes to the pension “necessary” and that they will “protect the long-term sustainability of our defined-benefit pension plan.” The email says the Board thinks these changes deserve to be discussed further.
In an interview last week, Westwood said that the pension restructuring would affect the pension’s indexing, which is how a retiree’s income stays ahead of inflation on a defined-benefit pension plan. It’s the only thing the DFA isn’t willing to negotiate. “As soon as you get rid of that, we’ll happily bargain with you.”
The DFA has made it clear they will strike over this issue if the Board doesn’t change its position. On Oct. 5, 90 per cent voted to strike if Dalhousie doesn’t change its position on key issues out of the 86.7 per cent of the members who attended the vote.
Before the DFA can legally strike, they have to wait 14 days after the conciliator files his No Board Report, indicating that conciliation failed. According to Westwood, Lloyd said he would file his report on Oct. 22, making Nov. 6 the first day the DFA could go on strike. The DFA would also have to give at least 24-hour notice before they strike.
In the meantime, the two sides can still reach an agreement and avoid a strike. The conciliator has asked both sides to meet again on Nov. 3 to talk it out.
What would happen if there’s a strike
If there is a strike, DFA members will stop working. For professors, that means any synchronous teaching, marking, and research will stop.
Not all instructors at Dal are DFA members though. According to CUPE 3912 president Karen Harper, about 10 per cent of instructors at Dal are part-time and represented through her union.
But, while CUPE wouldn’t participate in a DFA strike, Dal might cancel all classes anyway, like they did the last time the DFA striked in 2002.
While we don’t know yet how a strike would affect the fall term, in their Oct. 19 email, the Board promises “[they] will do everything [they] can to ensure the academic term is completed.”
King’s has yet to decide what it will do in the case of a DFA strike, but according to President Bill Lahey, it could mean suspending some King’s classes.
“In the past, when there has been a strike at Dalhousie, King’s has suspended all classes that are open to Dalhousie students as well as King’s students,” said Lahey. “But that’s just what we’ve done in the past. I suspect that we will do something like that again. But this is only decided after there’s conversations with the faculty of King’s.”
Lahey said that they will let students know what will happen to King’s classes “well before any strike can happen at Dalhousie.”
He also emphasized that the DFA and Dal are still in the collective bargaining process, which “most of the time results in a settlement.”
DSU president Madeleine Stinson said in an interview on Oct. 21 that mental health services at Dal Health will continue if there’s a strike.
Last week, DFA president David Westwood said in an interview that counsellors in the DFA are considered essential workers and would work 50 per cent of their normal hours during a strike. Westwood said they have about 6 or 7 counsellors in the DFA.
DSU will continue to support students
In an interview on Oct. 21, DSU president Madeleine Stinson said the DSU will continue to advocate for students in this situation. If there is a strike, it will push to “try and get folks back to normal academic services as soon as possible.”
The DSU will also keep students informed on what’s happening with negotiations between the DFA and Dal as the situation changes.
A potential strike is one more thing for students to worry about, in a semester when students are already under stress from the pandemic and switching to online learning. The DSU has heard from students who are feeling overwhelmed.
“I think it’s very fair to say there’s a mental health and well being crisis in the student community right now,” said Stinson.