‘It’s just terrible for employees’: University of Lethbridge Faculty Association holds rally as contract talks drag on

LETHBRIDGE –

The University of Lethbridge is the city’s second largest employer, but faculty members at the school have been without a contract more than a year and negotiations have dragged on for more than 500 days.

One major sticking point in contract talks is that the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) says the U of L’s board of governors is proposing a four per cent salary rollback that would be retroactive to July 2020.

“The uncertainty of could there be a strike, could there be a lockout, could there be some kind of future trouble, it’s just terrible for employees,” said Daniel O’Donnell, ULFA president.

“Especially for those employees who really want the university to work and have proven that in the past by their willingness to help the university out in the past by accepting wage rollbacks.”

However, budget cuts to post-secondary institutions imposed by the provincial government have put pressure on the university.

“By the end of 2022/23, the government of Alberta’s operating support for the university will have been reduced by over 21 per cent since 2019/20,” reads a statement sent to CTV News from a university spokesperson.

“Advocating for ongoing public support for post-secondary education is an important activity, and like ULFA, the University of Lethbridge continues to make the case to the government of Alberta that investments in post-secondary education will help our city, region and province grow, diversify our economy, and improve the quality of life of Albertans and beyond.”

“In late October, the Board negotiating team applied for informal mediation services under the Alberta Labour Relations Code. Informal mediation is an established, positive, and constructive tool for collective bargaining, which supports both parties in reaching mutually acceptable agreements through a neutral third party. The Board negotiation team believes the assistance of an objective third-party mediator is necessary to achieve a resolution.”

Despite the financial realities facing all post-secondary institutions, the ULFA claims academic staff at comparator universities in the country make 10 to 15 per cent more than U of L faculty members.

With the aforementioned four per cent salary rollback being proposed by the board of governors, many faculty members are on edge.

“We just want some clarity and a fair agreement here because that’s a threat to claw back funds we’ve already been paid, and paid taxes on,” said Julia Brassolatto, associate professor in public health and ULFA job action communications co-chair.

There’s also a concern that if the next agreed upon contract continues to chip away at faculty pay those who will feel the secondary effects will be the students.

“If we have increased workloads, and burnout, and mental health impacts of this increase of demands, that can translate into things like larger class sizes because we don’t have the funding for more instructors,” said Brassolatto.

“It can also mean that students don’t get the same research opportunities because they don’t exist, it means that they might not get to know their professors as well to have those networking opportunities that people say they quite enjoy about the U of L.”

Dozens gathered in front of the U of L campus on Wednesday afternoon to raise awareness of the issue.

The goal is to reach an agreement that satisfies both sides before things boil over resulting in a strike, or a lockout.

“I am deeply concerned about the continued erosion of staff salaries and increasing workloads resulting from staffing shortages. Unless these cuts are reversed, they will undoubtedly reduce our ability to attract and retain the best researchers and educators to our institution,” said Dr. Andy Hudson from the department of biological sciences.

“This will negatively impact the capacity of our staff to deliver the high-quality learning experience that our students expect at U of L.”

The ULFA is also looking to address the inclusion of vision benefits, maintaining “academic freedom,” the introduction of language that recognizes Indigenous research and improving collegial governance in any ongoing negotiations.

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