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Dalhousie Faculty Association receives huge strike mandate as it heads into conciliation

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – An overwhelming majority of members of the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) are willing to go on strike if the university’s Board of Governors doesn’t compromise on its current bargaining stance. 

87% of the roughly 950 professors, instructors, librarians and professional counsellors who belong to the DFA took part in the strike vote, and more than 90% of them said “yes” to strike action.

As we reported earlier, the DFA has asked for a conciliator, and the union felt that a strong strike mandate was called for. 

See also: “We’re miles apart” – Dalhousie Faculty Association files for conciliator

“It’s not our usual practice to go into conciliation with a strike mandate, but where there’s been so little movement by the board, we just thought it was important that they understand that even in this difficult time we’re prepared to go to the wall, if necessary,” says David Westwood, president of the DFA. 

The Dalhousie Board of Governors offers a three year deal with a zero percent wage increase each year. The Board is also asking for very significant concessions to the Dalhousie Pension Plan.

Originally the Board was asking for staff to take a 5 percent wage cut in year one and a freeze in year two, pointing to smaller student enrollment numbers because of the pandemic. That position became untenable after it became apparent that overall enrollment has increased 3.8% over the same time last year, with a 4.8% increase in domestic students and a 0.6% increase in international students. 

Why the Board chose this year to push for such draconic demands remains a puzzle. Not only is enrollment up, last year Dalhousie recorded its largest Operating-Fund surplus in seventeen years, nearly $39.5 million, “enough to increase the budget allocations for Faculty and Libraries by over 10%,” a DFA analysis suggests.

And the differences are not just about dollars and cents. On non-monetary or low cost issues the board is equally inflexible, Westwood says. 

For instance, efforts to get salaries for faculty that come from Indigenous backgrounds to reflect their engagement in traditional ways of knowing as a scholarly activity were rejected. And any concerns about an increased workload for online teaching were roundly dismissed, Westwood says.  

“We were just flabbergasted because it really showed how disconnected some people on the board are from the reality of our working life. This is partly why our members voted so strongly, because they feel misunderstood and underappreciated,” says Westwood.

Another major point of contention is around the precarity of short term teaching contracts. About 18% of the bargaining unit are on those short term contracts without any job security, some for as long as 25 consecutive years. DFA argues that after two contract rounds clearly the position is no longer meeting just a short term need and should be deemed permanent, but the board is not interested.

Although during bargaining focus naturally is on the board, we should not forget the role of the provincial government in all this, says Westwood.

“The proportion of the university’s operating budget that comes from the province is dipping perilously close to 50%, the remainder comes mostly from tuition fees. If this pattern continues, I’m not sure we’ll be able to be called a public institution anymore in a few more years. It’s really at the feet of the provincial government to explain how it allowed this erosion of its responsibility over time,” Westwood says.

Meanwhile, if the conciliator cannot bridge the broad gaps between the two sides, faculty may well be walking the picket lines in the not too distant future. 

“We’re still not sure why this is the year they’ve chosen to try to force through these changes, other  than that they don’t believe we have the strength to fight back because of Covid fears. To try to take advantage of the pandemic in such a way is just terrible,” Westwood says.

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