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Conciliation between Dalhousie and faculty fails, making strike more likely

Dalhousie University.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Conciliator-led talks between the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) and the university’s Board of Governors have failed, which means that in roughly two weeks time faculty members could be walking the picket line.

“The Board (…) have not moved on a few critical issues related to our pension that are unacceptable to our members. At a time when the university needs everyone working together, the Board is choosing to push our members to the brink,” a DFA press release states.

Efforts by a government-appointed conciliator were halted on the very first morning of what was scheduled to be a two-day effort, once it became clear that the Board of Governors wasn’t willing to budge on its demand that fundamental changes be made to the pension plan. These changes would affect both future and current pensioners.

“We made sure that the conciliator understood that if the Board wanted to negotiate, which we certainly did, there were plenty of other items on the table that we’re more than happy to tackle, where we believe there’s a resolution available. But they did have to get rid of the proposal on the pension,” Westwood says.

The conciliator established that the university’s position on the pension issue is as entrenched as the DFA’s. The problem is that either you make a change to the structure of the pension or you don’t. There isn’t really any room for compromise, Westwood explains. 

“We negotiated for the shape and structure of the current pension plan some 20-odd years ago, we fought on arbitration on it, and we have used it to accept low wage offers in the past, all to protect this plan. We’re not just letting it go at this moment in time,” Westwood says.

Westwood still holds out hope that a strike can be averted, and two days have been set aside by the conciliator directly prior to the end of the two week period, just in case either party decides to change its stance on the pension issue.

It won’t be the DFA though, says Westwood. 

As we reported earlier, 87% of the roughly 950 professors, instructors, librarians and professional counsellors who belong to the DFA took part in a strike vote, and more than 90% of them said “yes” to strike action, mainly because they don’t want to see pension benefits for current and future retirees decrease.

The same pension also covers Dalhousie administrative and operational support workers belonging to NSGEU. Their locals are also engaging in collective bargaining, although the talks have not yet advanced as far as the DFA negotiations. Managers would also be affected, Westwood says.

There was no need to make 2020, already a bad year for everybody involved, ever so much worse, says Westwood.

Much of the current pressures on staff, and also students, could have been prevented if only the Board had agreed to delay bargaining for a year and allow time for some of the uncertainty related to COVID-19 to settle down, as the DFA proposed, Westwood suggests.

How students will be affected by a strike is very much on the mind of faculty, Westwood says. This is also why he is very appreciative of the support for faculty the Dalhousie Student Union expressed at yesterday’s Board of Governors meeting. 

“Our members are very passionate about their students. They know that students are in the worst position of anybody right now, they’re incredibly stressed, they’re short of money, some have families to worry about,” says Westwood.

Westwood believes compromises can be found on all other issues still left unresolved. 

“We are absolutely still prepared to bargain. We’re not just going to let that pension issue go, but for everything else though there is room for an agreement. This isn’t about advancing our wages, it isn’t about gaining anything that we don’t already have. It’s a defensive position. At the outset of this entire process we tried to delay this entire activity until next year, but the Board said no,” Westwood says.

“What it tells me is that it’s not us, but the Board who are inviting a strike. It’s the Board who want to endure a strike, and they want it this year.”

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

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