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Strikes at two Atlantic universities tied to chronic underfunding: unions

Members of Memorial University Faculty Association wave to supporters as they man a picket line on Prince Philip Drive on the first day of their strike, Monday, January 30, 2023 in St. John’s. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly Members of Memorial University Faculty Association wave to supporters as they man a picket line on Prince Philip Drive on the first day of their strike, Monday, January 30, 2023 in St. John’s. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -

Leaders of faculty unions say ongoing strikes at two Atlantic Canadian universities are a sign of growing frustration among instructors and staff, driven by persistent underfunding of public post-secondary education in the region.

Members of the faculty association at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador spent Monday on the picket line, after a strike was called at midnight. Faculty at Cape Breton University walked off the job last week, and spent the day outside hoisting signs in support of their demands -- and of their striking colleagues at Memorial.

Both associations represent professors, librarians and other faculty at their respective schools.

Josh Lepawsky, president-elect of Memorial's faculty association, said the strikes at both schools are a sign of a "long, chronic process of actively dismantling quality, public higher education."

"We all work at public universities that should be appropriately supported with public money," the geography professor said in an interview Monday. "And yet, we've all experienced chronic cuts to operating budgets."

Another education sector labour conflict looms in the region: in Halifax, faculty at Saint Mary's University could go on strike as early as Feb. 24.

About 800 faculty members at Memorial University's campuses in St. John's, Corner Brook and Labrador were on strike as of 12:01 a.m. Monday after negotiations with Memorial's administration stalled the day before.

The faculty association is looking for more say in university governance, including representation on the school's board of regents. They are also seeking improved job security for the school's contract employees, who Lepawsky said must reapply for their positions every four or eight months when their contracts end.

The university administration says the union is refusing its offer of a 12 per cent wage increase over four years and instead demanding 14 per cent over the same period. The school says its offer would translate to a salary of $164,084 by 2026 for the average tenured professor currently making $137,300.

In a news release Sunday, the university said it has taken steps to include faculty representation on the board of regents.

"We value our faculty highly," Neil Bose, interim provost and vice-president academic, said in the release. "We encourage (Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association) to come back to the negotiating table so that we can minimize disruption for students."

In Cape Breton, about 200 striking faculty members are seeking pay raises to deal with the soaring cost of living. The administration says the union is seeking a 14 per cent raise over the next two years. The university has offered wage increases of eight per cent over three years, in addition to existing annual step increases.

Rod Nicholls, a member of the school's bargaining team, said Monday the offer is comparable to what teachers make at other universities in Nova Scotia.

"We have distinctive challenges as a regional university located in Cape Breton. There's an ambitious expansion of programs that are in demand," Nicholls said, noting that the university is planning to create a department of social work and a medical school.

Heather Sparling, a music professor and spokeswoman for the Cape Breton University Faculty Association, said the school's offer is not enough. "They are offering us less than inflation, and so for us that's a loss -- that's a pay cut -- and at the same time the university has increased its population very significantly," Sparling said in an interview.

She, too, sees common threads in the Cape Breton and Newfoundland and Labrador disputes. "I think there is a general effort by universities to limit the salaries of faculty in this region. And there's a general sense of frustration and disrespect there as well."

Meanwhile, Memorial's student union says it stands behind striking faculty. "I think students are definitely stressed, they're anxious, but overall, we have seen an overwhelming amount of support for faculty," said Isabel Ojeda, the union's director of campaigns.

The strike at Memorial comes after the school substantially hiked tuition rates in 2022, more than doubling tuition for new students from Newfoundland and Labrador.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2023.

With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax. Top Stories

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