Stand-off on labour talks

As negotiations continue between faculty association and Queen's administration, our panelists weigh in from either side of the bargaining table

Bob Silverman, Provost and Vice Principal of Academics

Universities are about learning—all aspects of learning. There is the learning in the undergraduate classroom. There is the learning of graduate students, arriving at fresh insights in their fields of study. And there is the learning of seasoned researchers, breaking new ground and expanding the boundaries of knowledge. Universities act as enablers for learning. They are purpose-built institutions—specialized institutions of intellect to be sure, but institutions nonetheless. They’re encumbered with all of the administrative challenges and minutiae familiar to any large enterprise.

Earlier this month, negotiations between the University and two of its employee groups—the members of the three Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals on campus and the members of the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA)—entered a new phase. Both of these groups held votes to determine their willingness to support a strike.

While these votes certainly mark significant milestones in negotiations, neither should lead anyone to believe that a labour disruption is inevitable. The negotiation of new collective agreements is a normal administrative challenge common to most large enterprises—and certainly to every institution of higher learning in this country.

What is new is the intensity of this round of negotiations—new to Queen’s anyway. As provost and a long-time member of the Queen’s faculty, I can say with fair certainty that the financial and administrative backdrop to this round of contract talks is one of the most complex in memory.

We live in an era of steadily decreasing per-student support from government and increasing demand for post-secondary education. We are also challenged by punishing financial markets, increasingly underfunded pension plans and unprecedented numbers of retirees drawing on those plans. Individually, these challenges would be formidable. In combination, they redefine the concept of “administrative challenge.”

It is little wonder then that we find ourselves in some of the most difficult and intense contract talks this institution has experienced to date. Intense, yes, but not insurmountable. Differences of opinion are inevitable in these circumstances, but compromise must be found. On this, everyone involved agrees. But where does the compromise lie? That is the challenge of the negotiations process—the challenge and the central purpose.

The administration’s goal in this round of collective bargaining was, is and remains: to reach negotiated settlements that balance the need to preserve quality while respecting the limitations dictated by our current financial realities. This is not an unrealistic goal, in any way. After all, we have concluded such agreements with two Queen’s employee groups already this year—one with the members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and another with members of the Ontario Nurses Association. Other universities have done the same. Most recently, Laurentian concluded an agreement with its faculty and Guelph reached a deal with its CUPE members. Solutions can, and will, be found. It’s a matter of when.

The Queen’s administration has been pressing to reach agreements before the beginning of the academic year. There are many benefits to reaching agreements before September. First and most apparently, concluding agreements before the fall term will ensure the least potential disruption. We are not alone in this wish. It is common to everyone involved. The second and less obvious benefit is financial.

The Queen’s Pension Plan (QPP) is in bad financial shape and the plan will continue to deteriorate the longer it takes to reach agreements on required changes. The good news is that the University and employee groups have a shared goal: to ensure the long-term sustainability of the plan.

The need for change has been acknowledged by all employee groups since pension reform discussions began in 2005. But here is the challenge: on August 31, the plan’s actuaries will take a financial snapshot of the plan.

This valuation determines the size of additional payments required by law to start closing the gap between what the plan has in it and what regulatory authorities say must be in it.

The plan is in much worse shape than it was at the time of the last valuation in 2008. Without reform, the payments we will be required to make as an institution could become crippling—potentially consuming $70-million per year, or about a sixth of the University’s total operating budget. We cannot afford to lose more time. The longer we wait, the more devastating this problem will become.

In order to preserve adequate retirement benefits, individual employees will have to contribute more and the institution will need to pay more too. The goal is to keep those increases manageable and in line with best practices. The changes that have been proposed are well within those guidelines. These changes would not apply to retirees.

Making good decisions in tight fiscal circumstances is not simple. Negotiating them can be even more difficult. But negotiations provide us with an important opportunity to address issues of mutual concern and to foster mutual understanding. It will not be easy but, ultimately, we will succeed. Until then, I encourage you to stay informed. Encourage your fellow members of the Queen’s community to do the same.

Paul Young, President, Queen's University Faculty Association

Labour unrest! It’s something that most faculty and students never think about. If they do, they usually term it administrative intransigence. Occasionally however, when the issues become important, the situation shifts rapidly.

Our Provost, Bob Silverman, in one of his recent missives suggests that engagement in the issues is key: “We feel strongly that the more people participate in the process, the more likely it becomes that negotiations will reach a meaningful and satisfactory outcome.” I agree. However, the administration still doesn’t engage with us.

The Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) held a general meeting of our membership on July 13. The purpose of the meeting was to seek a strike mandate. Instead of relying on the vote from just the general meeting itself, we successfully engaged our entire membership through the internet. This is probably a first for a university faculty union; we were not constitutionally obligated to do this. Dunning Hall auditorium was filled for the meeting, and the live webcast and E-vote were heavily subscribed. The crowd responded enthusiastically to the presentation of facts and was clearly engaged with the issues, both in the room and through the live webcast question feed. Overall 78 per cent of our membership voted; 72 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of the strike mandate. Given the high participation rate, this is an extraordinary result. Bob, are we engaged? Keep in mind that a strike mandate doesn’t necessarily mean a strike.

There has never been such a vote here in the past. Are the faculty becoming militant? Is it a sign of a shift in the administrative wind? Most of the campus employees are now represented by unions and QUFA is not the only one in negotiations. The administration is steadily moving towards a more corporate model and coupling it to cutbacks in budgets at most levels.

Clearly, income is limiting. Nevertheless, it is the administration that decides how to carve the pie. Faculty salary, as a proportion of the total budget, has been steadily declining for a long time. How can this happen? Isn’t a university fundamentally about teaching and research? Isn’t it about faculty and students? With steadily increasing student numbers, shouldn’t the faculty complement grow? Shouldn’t job security be achievable by all good teachers who consistently perform well?

The reality is that the student to faculty ratio at Queen’s has been steadily increasing for decades. Queen’s, along with other Ontario universities, now has one of the worst ratios in the country. It is occurring at a time when there is increased downloading of non-teaching duties onto our faculty and the quality of the academic workplace is deteriorating. The administration is proposing unilateral changes to a variety of things at the bargaining table and generally rejecting the arguments made by our bargaining team. The faculty want a voice through negotiation and the strike mandate vote is the outcome.

Silverman, on the issue of pension reform, notes “it’s a big challenge, but solutions are available.” So true. It’s only one of many issues and there are many solutions, but the administration will only accept one, theirs, which hasn’t been discussed with QUFA or other unions and doesn’t include any input from employees.

What does all of this mean for the students at Queen’s? The faculty want a fair, negotiated settlement of the issues. Bargaining has been going on for months. Presentations continue but the administration must soon demonstrate their commitment to negotiations at the bargaining table. If not, a lockout or strike is possible.

In either case, if the faculty aren’t allowed to work or if the faculty withdraw their services, the University will shut down. Obviously this is disruptive. The strike mandate vote taken on July 13 empowers the QUFA executive to call a strike if they deem it necessary to achieve a fair settlement.

No one on the faculty side desires this outcome, as we all care very much about the university and the students. If faculty are forced to strike, it will be to protect the quality of Queen’s University. At this point, both parties are still at the bargaining table.

However, if the administration persists in refusing to engage in bargaining, incoming students this Fall could start their personal engagement with Queen’s by facing empty classrooms, closed libraries and closed facilities. It has happened on some other campuses. That said, typically in the negotiated protocols governing the return of faculty to work following a job action, there are accommodations made that allow students to make up time and credits, so progress in their programs is not delayed.

According to representatives from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, who attended our meeting on July 13, such protocols have been negotiated in all cases in the recent past. Faculty typically spend their entire working career engaged with students at one level or another. Students are not the target of a strike. However, a major part of our job is teaching and in an adversarial bargaining process, it is part of what is withdrawn in a work stoppage.

The current situation is potentially harming Queen’s reputation. The pending crisis is driven by an unrealistic budgetary straitjacket imposed by the Board of Trustees and an uncompromising attitude permeating the upper administration. With a little good will, both of these can change and a fair settlement will be reached.

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