The threat of a strike hangs over St. Francis Xavier University.
Last-ditch efforts at conciliation talks will take place Jan. 23 and 24 between the St. Francis Xavier Association of University Teachers (StFXAUT) and university administrators before possible strike action starting Jan. 28.
But after already undergoing several sessions of failed talks under the guidance of a provincial conciliator, there’s little hope of agreement, according to StFXAUT president Peter McInnis.
“They’re out to bust the union,” he said. “The university administration won’t table a complete package for discussion, as we have done. They won’t respond at all on certain issues, they aren’t engaging in good faith bargaining.”
The conciliator tabled a “no board” report after a second failed round of talks in early January, triggering a 14-day countdown to possible union-initiated job action. StFXAUT members have been without a collective agreement for months and in October voted 80% in favour of taking strike action.
McInnis says job security is the central issue, and notes that StFXAUT represents more than 400 members divided into eight groups engaged in diverse employment with the university, such as full and part-time contract academic staff, librarians, clinical nursing staff, archivists and lab instructors.
While about 230 members are full-time faculty, some 135 are contract academic staff or others, “earning perhaps $20–$30,000 with no benefits, making the negotiations complex,” he said. “But we are all on the same page in terms of delivering academic excellence.”
The administration has offered a four-year deal with lower compensation than other Nova Scotia institutions or the neighbouring University of Prince Edward Island, and less generous health benefits and pension plan for full-time faculty, McInnis says. As well, administrators refuse to discuss the practise of hiring part-time teachers on “precarious, limited-term contracts” with no access to group benefits.
Contract staff typically teach under eight-month contracts with no assurance of continuation, and as of January, less assistance under new federal employment insurance rules in place for “repeat” claimants.
“Yet they are suggesting they will make significant program realignments and cuts, including watering down of language around academic freedom. So we are fighting to retain the kind of collegial self-government and student-centred activities that have been characteristic of our past history,” McInnis said.
McInnis likens the administration’s approach to a “top-down” corporate model, with a corresponding power shift to top university administrators.