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Dalhousie’s hard line bargaining stance proves futile but harms staff and students

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The latest round of bargaining between the Dalhousie board of governors (BoG) and faculty has officially ended as both parties ratified the new collective agreement.

You have to wonder what on earth the BoG was thinking throughout these negotiations.

The BoG raised hurdles at every step of the process, only to end up with an agreement very close to what the Dalhousie Faculty Association had proposed at the start of the negotiations. 

Doing so aggravated the already substantial stress staff and students were under. Switching to on-line teaching and learning is hard at the best of times, let alone while living through a pandemic.

To recap, the BoG started out demanding a 5 percent wage cut in year one and a freeze in year two, predicting without evidence that student enrollment numbers would decrease 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.

The board’s initial hard line position on pensions didn’t help either. These changes would affect both future and current pensioners, and disregarded that historically the union accepted low-wage offers in the past to protect the plan.  

When even the services of a conciliator failed to bring the sides together, the DFA membership delivered a strong strike mandate – almost 91% of the voting membership said “yes” to strike action in support of DFA’s position. Nearly 87% of DFA members cast a vote.

As the clock was ticking and a strike or lockout became a distinct possibility the board agreed to a proposal by the DFA to refer the outstanding bargaining issues to a conciliation board which could recommend possible resolutions.

That conciliation board process led to a successful resolution of major differences around pensions, salaries, and so on.

But still the board was raising obstacles, although the issues were becoming increasingly trivial.

At the university both permanent instructors and professors are entitled to educational leave or sabbaticals every seven years. Whereas the years professors worked in limited term appointments are counted, this is not the case for instructors. The DFA wanted this changed, and during the conciliation process the three members of the conciliation board, including the BoG representative, sided with the union.

But right before Christmas the board said no, extending negotiations into the new year.

And for what? Predictably, when the two parties finally settled these last differences there were no substantial changes. 

But what likely has changed is the way faculty perceives its employer.

“You can have respectful disagreements about contentious issues, that’s what bargaining is about. But you have to pay attention to the background conditions. And in that context it is unconscionable to do this to students and faculty,” Dalhousie University research professor Françoise Baylis told us in October.

Baylis felt the board’s approach could only be explained as a series of deeply cynical moves, a pandemic opportunism to strike when it believes its opponent at its weakest, no matter the emotional toll and no matter the long term consequences.

“People feel completely disrespected. Because of the pandemic people are working harder than they probably ever have, for the benefit of the students and for the benefit of the institution. We’re doing so much with so little, and this is how they treat us. They tell us how grateful they are, yet this is how they show their gratitude,” Baylis said.

The board may have lost a lot more than it bargained for.

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