One of my favourite stories about the University of Lethbridge is related to its origins. This city fought to have its own university and it fought for that university’s autonomy. That fight culminated in a Freedom and Autonomy march held in May of 1968 in downtown Lethbridge.
In the more than 50 years that followed, the University of Lethbridge has grown and thrived. Currently home to almost 9,000 students and over 1,000 academic and support staff, the University of Lethbridge is a key economic driver in southern Alberta.
I came to the University of Lethbridge 11 years ago, excited to contribute to its growth as a leading research institution, eager to collaborate with many colleagues who are acclaimed researchers and teachers. My two years as a Board of Governors Teaching Chair provided me with a unique opportunity to witness the many ways my colleagues from across the university pursued their own excellence in teaching. Through our collective efforts, we cultivate alumni who are community leaders, expanding the university’s impact within our community and around the world.
Today, the University of Lethbridge remains an institution worth fighting for.
Through much of its 50-year history, provincial legislation did not allow for strikes or lockouts in the post-secondary sector. Instead, any impasse related to financial matters was to be resolved by an independent arbitrator selecting what they believed was the most appropriate offer of resolution from both sides, while changes to working conditions required mutual agreement. The process compelled reasonableness and compromise during negotiations. A Supreme Court ruling in 2015 on the right to strike, however, invalidated this legislation. As a consequence, strikes and lockouts have become the main tools to break impasse when reason, goodwill, and compromise fail.
In the almost 600 days since the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association’s (ULFA) contract expired, we have seen the consequences of this change in the negotiations framework. ULFA’s members do not want to be on strike; we’d much rather be in our classrooms, our labs, and our offices working with our students. However, in the past two years the Board’s negotiators have shown themselves to be unable or perhaps unwilling to engage with ULFA’s key priorities.
The Board’s negotiating team continues to insinuate that the reason for impasse in negotiations is the unreasonable compensation proposals put forward by ULFA. Yet, ULFA has tried to be clear that while fair compensation is important, this is not the major hurdle preventing an agreement with the Board. Even though University of Lethbridge faculty are compensated 15 per cent less, on average, than our colleagues at comparator institutions, ULFA has been flexible on expectations regarding compensation. On the eve of the strike, ULFA offered terms that equated to approximately a five per cent increase in salary over four years. The ULFA negotiating team again offered similar terms on Feb. 12. ULFA’s proposals are in line with agreements recently signed by nurses, Government of Alberta employees, and other post-secondary institutions in the province.
The main hurdle to resolving the impasse is that the Board’s negotiators seem unwilling to engage meaningfully with ULFA proposals designed to achieve greater equity, transparency, and shared decision-making at the University of Lethbridge. These include proposals to provide greater equity and employment stability for sessional instructors—the most vulnerable population of instructors within any university system; proposals to ensure the university honours long-standing clauses in our collective agreement designed to ensure transparency in how workload equity is determined and achieved at the University of Lethbridge; proposals to ensure greater transparency in the University’s budget process; and proposals for co-management of our jointly funded benefits.
Since the strike/lockout began, the Board’s negotiating team has refused to meet with ULFA’s negotiating team. The University’s messaging suggests that this impasse may go on for quite some time. The longer this impasse lasts, the more damage it will do to the University of Lethbridge — its reputation, its community, its students, and its spirit of collegiality and respect.
The University of Lethbridge can’t afford the damage that will be possible if things do not change. We know our Board members care about this institution but increasingly it seems they do not grasp how serious the consequences or how significant the damage could be to the university from a protracted failure to negotiate a resolution to this impasse.
As a community, we need to empower and encourage our Board members to stand up and fight for this institution. We need to help them understand what damage a prolonged impasse will do to this university.
If you are a student or parent who is concerned about losing the semester due to this impasse, reach out and let the Board know (names and information on the Board of Governors can be found on the University of Lethbridge website).
If you are an alumni and are concerned about damage to the reputation of the institution that granted your degree, let the Board know.
If you are a business owner concerned about long-term reduction in student enrollment—and its downstream negative economic impact — created by a new culture of labour strife at the University of Lethbridge, let the Board know.
If you are a member of the community concerned about how a negative working environment at the University of Lethbridge may impact the students and staff members of your community, let the Board know.
Our community has fought for this university before, your university needs you to fight for it again.
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education