In Quebec City, hundreds of Université Laval professors walk out on 1st day of strike

Professors walked out on Monday as part of the first day of strikes at Université Laval.  (Jean-Francois Nadeau/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Professors walked out on Monday as part of the first day of strikes at Université Laval. (Jean-Francois Nadeau/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Hundreds of professors went on strike Monday morning, raising signs and marching with their families around the Université Laval campus in Quebec City.

A total of 1,300 professors are asking for a reduction in workload, more protection for vulnerable employees, better pay and 100 additional positions.

The strike comes a week after the professors voted 94.5 per cent in favour of an unlimited general strike. On Sunday, Université Laval management presented an offer to the union, the Syndicat des professeurs et professeures de l'Université Laval, to end the labour dispute.

The union is expected to come back with a counter-offer.

Émilie Warren/CBC
Émilie Warren/CBC

Louis-Philippe Lampron, president of the union, says the professors are focused on decreasing their workload and increasing salary to be in line with other universities, particularly those in the so-called U15, the top 15 research universities in Canada.

"At Université Laval we are kind of disadvantaged for the last many years, when you compare our salaries to the average … salaries offered to professors working in the U15," said Lampron.

"We are doing pretty well in the kind of research, we are sixth in this group, but when you're talking about salaries we are not even in the chart, we're so far behind."

He says the union wants teachers to be at the centre of decision-making at the university and to offer protection to "vulnerable colleagues" — such as those who do not have tenure.

University says it can't pay

But Université Laval management estimates that the union's demands would cost $70 million for next year — an amount it says is beyond its means.

The university says the Ministry of Higher Education says tuition fee increases must not exceed three per cent this year and that last year they went up 2.64 per cent.

The university has also seen a 0.5 per cent dip in enrolment this year and expects another similar reduction in student numbers next year.

"We had many discussions last week regarding the surplus that the union was saying that we had, and of course this was wrong," said André Darveau, vice-rector for human resources and finances.

"This was a wrong interpretation … So we are still explaining to them what's the reality regarding that."

He said at a news conference Monday that the union's wage demands have not changed since last September and that they would represent an increase of about 20 per cent for the first year.

Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada
Colin Côté-Paulette/Radio-Canada

Professors 'overloaded with work'

But Lampron says that the institution could meet their demands because it recorded surpluses totalling $257 million between 2018 and 2022.

"It's kind of disappointing because … since the beginning of our negotiation, they are trying to reduce what we are asking to the simple monetary question, to the simple salary question," said Lampron.

He said working conditions are also top of mind.

"They are overloaded with work … Because the directions and the decisions taken at the Université Laval since the last decade are not putting professors at the centre of the process."

 Jean-Francois Nadeau/Radio-Canada
Jean-Francois Nadeau/Radio-Canada

Chantelle Sephton, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and neuroscience, was one of the professors who joined the picket line on Monday outside the university.

She says professors' salaries need to be "brought up to national standards," especially considering how their workload has increased.

"The pandemic's been a little bit special but I have seen the class size numbers go up and then that means there's more exams to mark, more reports to mark," said Sephton.

Effects on students' families, income

The university says the strike is affecting about 40 per cent of classes and if the labour dispute continues, the semester could be extended.

That would be a "catastrophe," said Alexandra Bak, an international student studying industrial relations.

Bak moved to Quebec City from France with her husband and two children in August for her master's program. She says because of the strike, teachers haven't been able to respond to students' questions.

"We don't have [all] the instructions, or we don't have help [or] the answers from the teachers because they are on strike and they can't answer us. So we try to do the best we can but it's not easy," said Bak.

She says she is nervous about how she will have to make up the time lost after school resumes.

Émilie Warren/CBC
Émilie Warren/CBC

Cathia Bergeron, vice-rector of academic and student affairs, says the best they can do right now is to keep the student body informed.

"We are focused on continuity so once the strike will be over we want to be ready Day 1 to continue offering classes, exam retakes, so that they can finish their session, their current term as quickly as possible," said Bergeron.

Sinan Kouadio Ibrahime, an international student doing his master's in epidemiology, says he is still anxious about what this means for the completion of his studies.

"We are not sure if the session will be saved," said Ibrahime. "If we have to pay $10,000 for a semester and the session is not validated… it's not that easy for us."

He says he is unsure if he will be able to return home this summer because of the semester delay.

"I return every year but I have to stay this year to finish the semester," said Ibrahime. "I don't know what will happen. We are going into the unknown and hoping they come to an agreement so that this can come to an end."