Classes could cease at University of Lethbridge as strike vote looms

·4 min read
Dan O'Donnell, president of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association, says he hopes if it comes to a strike, that it is 'strong and short.' (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)
Dan O'Donnell, president of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association, says he hopes if it comes to a strike, that it is 'strong and short.' (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)

Students, faculty and administration at the University of Lethbridge await a potential strike vote next week, with the future of classes for the rest of the semester up in the air.

University administration and faculty have been in contract negotiations for nearly 600 days after the faculty's collective agreement expired on June 20, 2020.

On Jan. 17, mediation broke down and the two sides entered a two-week cooling off period the following day.

This coming week, likely Wednesday and Thursday, faculty could participate in a strike vote, supervised by the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB). Should the majority of faculty be in favour, a strike could begin as early as the following week.

Similarly, the University of Lethbridge has the ability to enact a lockout on its employees, according to the ALRB.

"Our hope would be that should a strike happen that it would be strong and short," said Dan O'Donnell, president of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association.

O'Donnell expressed frustrations over the negotiation process he has been a part of, especially given the amount of time that it has taken.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

What faculty want

O'Donnell looks to the example of the Concordia University strike that ended earlier this month as an example of what the Lethbridge faculty hope to achieve.

Joy Morris is a professor of mathematics at the university and is on the UFLA negotiation team.

Compensation and salary are one of the key focuses of negotiations, she said.

"We're about 10 to 15 per cent behind in every job category at every rank … all the five universities that we've agreed on with the university should be comparators for our negotiations," she said.

Other key issues are workload and a push for representation of faculty on university budget committees. They are also asking that a committee be set up evaluating faculty benefits.

"Most of our benefits are not actually written into the contract in terms of the details of what we get for them," she said.

"What we're asking there is that we have a committee set up so that we can make sure that we're actually getting value for our money for our benefits."

On Thursday, the university sent out an unsigned email to students and faculty that said should a strike take place, faculty will not be able to access their academic platforms, including their emails, or offer instruction of research.

In a statement provided to CBC News on Friday, the university said it is is "committed to negotiating a collective agreement that respects the contribution and value of our colleagues and ensures a high-quality post-secondary education for our students."

"We understand labour negotiations can cause uncertainty for faculty, students and staff," the statement read.

"We hope to make progress on issues of concern from our faculty association through ongoing negotiation. We pledge to do our utmost to avoid interruptions to student learning and university operations, and to continue keeping our faculty, students and staff updated on the bargaining process."

Submitted by Ziv Corenblum, Mckenna Layne, Amy Mendenhall
Submitted by Ziv Corenblum, Mckenna Layne, Amy Mendenhall

Students react

The email sent to faculty and students also assured students the university is working to avoid a strike outcome and protect student learning experiences.

"Above all else, we remain dedicated to supporting our students. We share students' concerns about academic delays that could be caused by ULFA job action, and their potential threat to the completion of the Spring 2022 semester," the email read in part.

It did note that if the strike goes forward with ALRB approval, all classes and research opportunities will cease. The email went on to say that could affect course completion and learning placements as well as delay final grades.

"It's quite, quite stressful, because you don't know what's gonna happen, like, next week or next month," said Ziv Corenblum, a third year political science and history student.

Corenblum says he supports the faculty but he is concerned for how this will affect his own plans to graduate on time.

Amy Mendenhall is a fourth year Indigenous studies student at the school who is helping to organize a protest Sunday in solidarity with the faculty association.

She says the support of faculty she and other students have experienced during the pandemic moved her to action.

"It's just a morale boost for our faculty who have done so much for us," she said.

Mckenna Layne, a fifth year student studying sociology and marketing, says the potential strike adds more unknowns to an already difficult time for students.

University of Lethbridge students are currently studying remotely, like many Alberta schools, due to the fifth wave of COVID-19 in Alberta.

"It's a little bit scary just being in school, already hard enough, thinking that it could be disrupted," she said.

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and tips can be sent to jennifer.dorozio@cbc.ca.

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