Fredericton – On Monday, January 6th, the leadership of the Association for University of New Brunswick Teachers (AUNBT) voted unanimously to announce a strike deadline of 12:01am, Monday January 13, 2014. That means unless a settlement can be reached in the next few days, pickets of the over 800 UNB (Fredericton and Saint John) full time academic staff and librarians could be seen early next week.
Members of AUNBT have had clearance to begin a strike since they tallied a 90% pro-strike vote on December 4th. However, on that same day, AUNBT agreed with the UNB Administration that they would hold a truce on any job action, strike or lockout until early January, with the exact date of January 2nd being negotiated days later. Since that date, and especially since classes resumed on January 6th, many students have been on the edge of their seats. Once the truce was over, a strike could be called with 24 hours notice.
Shortly after the end of the truce though, UNB Administration asked to have additional meetings and extend the truce until the third week of January, but AUNBT did not as of then decide whether they would continue with the meetings. AUNBT President Miriam Jones announced on Friday, January 3rd that a definitive decision would come after the negotiation meeting the following Monday, and that definitive decision was the 12:01 AM January 13th strike deadline.
Upon the New Year, the UNB Student Union tried to apply pressure as well. On January 3rd, the Student Union told the UNB student paper, The Brunswickan, that they urge students not to pay tuition until the January 17th deadline, after which they would be dinged a $50 late charge. The Student Union also suggested that if a settlement had not been reached by then, they would push for the deadline to be moved. Additionally, members of the Fredericton Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an industrial union movement that includes UNB students, began handing out a leaflet on January 7th, echoing the call to refrain from paying tuition, but also giving firm support to AUNBT’s side.
What’s on the table?
AUNBT has been in contract negotiations for the new full-time collective agreement with its employer, the University of New Brunswick, since last spring. The two teams met twenty-six times between March 13 and July 25, 2013, at which point UNB administration applied for conciliation. The teams met with the conciliator a dozen times beginning on Sept. 4. The conciliation process formally ended on Nov. 15, but the two teams have continued to meet with the former conciliator acting as a mediator. The process has been described by AUNBT as collegial, but with little progress made in the past several weeks.
The primary remaining issue is comparability: the need for compensation and working conditions comparable to those of other Canadian comprehensive universities in order to be able to attract and retain candidates of a caliber to maintain UNB’s reputation and standing.
“I can name half a dozen departments at UNB that are having difficulty hiring because of our low starting salaries and our lack of support for new scholars,” said AUNBT president Miriam Jones. “How can we blame someone for choosing to go to a place where the starting salary is twenty per cent higher and they are given a decent start-up grant to build a lab? I’m not talking about UofT here, just other mid-sized universities across the country. Our administration says that UNB is the ‘economic engine’ of the province. Well, that engine is seizing up.”
When asked how academic staff could ask for increases in the current tight economic climate, Dr. Jones was emphatic. “Every year UNB management presents us with a budget that indicates we are barely making ends meet. But you know what? While they have been shrinking the size of the faculty for a decade, saying they can’t afford to replace people who leave or retire, they have managed to hire twice as many non-academic staff. We are down 48 faculty members but somehow we have acquired an extra 84 non-academic personnel. It would seem that there is money, for some things at least. So we got suspicious and we did some digging in the audited financial statements. We produced detailed financial reports for our members explaining what we found, and you know the result: a 90% strike vote.”
Dr. Jones made clear that it is up to the UNB Administration to avoid a strike.