UNB profs in strike position: interview with union president Miriam Jones

Written by Asaf Rashid on December 12, 2013

Miriam Jones, president AUNBT, photo credit: AUNBT

Miriam Jones, president of AUNBT. Photo from AUNBT.

The University of New Brunswick (UNB) full time academic staff are in a strike position. They have been without a contract since last March and voted a near unanimous 90% in favour of a strike on December 3rd and 4th after negotiations reached an impasse.

The main sticking point in negotiations has been the level of full-time salaries. The Association of UNB Teachers (AUNBT) has been trying to negotiate salaries comparable to counterparts at 14 similar universities across Canada, such as Dalhousie, Memorial, Queens, University of Victoria, and MacMaster. Annual salaries for UNB professors are on average thousands of dollars less than the average of the 14 universities. For a clear understanding of the difference, click on the below table by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

average salaries G14 universities

UNB has not been willing to meet the terms of AUNBT, hence the present struggle continues. For some more details on the differences in positions across the bargaining table, see this document which lists offers from both sides.

Both sides returned to the bargaining table on December 9th and that is where things currently stand as far as negotiations go. In terms of potential job action, either strike or lockout, the parties agreed to a truce for the duration of exams until January 2nd, the first day after the New Year holiday. AUNBT wanted to keep the truce until January 6th, the first day of classes, but UNB would not budge. The January 2nd date puts UNB in a strategic position for a lockout, since AUNBT members will not have resumed work yet, thus cannot walk out (strike).

The NB Media Co-op interviewed Miriam Jones, AUNBT president, on Dec. 12th.

 What is the status on negotiations?

Conciliation is over. The parties are now in a position to legally initiate job action, though we have agreed to a “truce” until Jan. 2, 2014. The two sides continue to meet, and a side-table is discussing a strike protocol.

Can you explain why UNB full time academic staff’s salaries are significantly lower than that of counterparts at comparable universities (G14)?

The spending choices of our administration. They are consistently choosing to move money away from the university’s core mission of teaching and research. In the past ten years we have lost 48 FT academic positions, mainly by retirees not being replaced. Programs and whole departments are being starved. During the same period, 84 people were hired in non-academic positions. We are reaching a crisis point. If the current trends continue — if there is not significant reinvestment in the core mission — then UNB is in real danger of losing credibility as a national comprehensive university.

How do you respond to claims that the offer from AUNBT is not feasible or unreasonable for UNB?

It would be perfectly feasible if they focused on developing teaching and research and stopped spending resources on peripheral activities. To anyone who suggests that there is no money, I suggest they take a closer look at UNB’s financial statements. And I don’t mean the budget, I mean the audited statements. The administration may say that our proposal is unreasonable; we say that it is unreasonable — unconscionable — to undermine the education of New Brunswick students, render them less competitive, and help drive them out of the province.

In the event of a strike / lockout, how will the work of contract faculty be affected?

Contract faculty are in a separate bargaining unit and their contract was settled early in the fall term. Their courses for the winter term should be unaffected by a strike. Of course, if the administration shuts down the entire university, they would obviously be affected by that. As their union AUNBT will fight to ensure that the terms of their contract are fulfilled and that they are not unduly disadvantaged by any job action involving the other bargaining unit.

Can you elaborate on efforts made by AUNBT to communicate with students?

We do not have access to students’ emails, and even if we did we would not consider it appropriate to send out mass-messages. We have been having ongoing discussions with the student unions in both Fredericton and Saint John, undergraduate and graduate, and have been asked to do several interviews with the Fredericton student newspaper, the Brunswickan. We have also written FAQ documents aimed at students, posted them on our website, and made them available to the student unions and the campus newspapers. And of course, our members see students every day and we have offered them some guidelines for discussing potential job action in their classrooms.

What message do you have for students?

I would tell our students that their professors, instructors and librarians would not undertake a job action lightly. The potential effects on students are of primary concern to our members. I know it is difficult to take the long view in the middle of the academic year, but we genuinely believe that by standing up for the integrity of our profession in the face of systematic attacks, we are also standing up for the quality of our students’ education and the value of their degrees. We know that our students have worked hard to get here, and are working even harder to stay. We know that many are working too many hours in outside jobs in order to be here, and that families are making sacrifices to help them. We strongly feel that with all that hard work and sacrifice, they deserve a shot at a high-qualitiy education and a credible, competitive degree.

I recently received a targeted ad online while I was doing background research for this issue. It was an ad from UNB: “Our average class size is 31. Learn from profs who will know your name.” How do you and other members of AUNBT feel about having their importance highlighted as a selling point, but being given less than counterparts at comparable institutions?

That may come back to bite our admin. We know our students’ names, and they know ours. Students are no fools. They can judge our commitment to our teaching and our research because they see it up close. Many students have already indicated that they stand behind us. They see programs shrinking or being cut. They see the number of available courses decreasing every year. They know what’s at stake. And since they know about hard work and sacrifice, they also know that sometimes you need to undergo short-term pain for long-term gain. Our administration likes to characterize students as “consumers” or “customers,” and some may see themselves that way and be angry if they are not getting the “product” they paid for. But I think most students see themselves as learners, actively responsible for making their own choices about their education. Those are the students whom we trust to understand that we, their professors, are exercising our responsibility by standing up to the erosion of our university. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell any students reading this that AUNBT’s door is always open and we are happy to meet with any of you who want to discuss the current labour relations.

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