University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) Terrace campus faculty members walked off the job this morning to protest stalled negotiations with their employer for fairer working conditions and higher wages.
Eight members of Terrace faculty gathered outside the campus in the cold, pouring rain at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 7, carrying signs reading ‘Good educators are priceless, not free’ and ‘On strike.’
The protest today comes after the union representing faculty at UNBC issued a 72-hour strike notice Monday. Demonstrations also taking place at UNBC’s main Prince George campus. Classes are cancelled at the Terrace campus today as protests continue.
A university spokesperson told Black Press Media the employer tabled an offer that included an average salary increase of about 15 per cent over three years for tenure-track and tenured faculty members, and remains committed to reaching an agreement at the table.
Striker Marian Kotowich-Laval has worked with UNBC for more than a decade. She says job action was necessary to not only secure better wages and working conditions for existing faculty, but future generations of educators as well.
“We’ve really done a lot of research and study for where we should be at, not only with wages, but promotions and tenure,” says Kotowich-Laval, who is a senior laboratory instructor at the Terrace campus.
The conflict is not just directed at UNBC, she says, but issues on a wider scope about how society values its educators.
“A lot of people put in extra personal time and finances, and that has to be recognized for us to ask our administrators, but also the government and Canadian people to say, where are we putting our priorities here?” Kotowich-Laval says.
“Education is not a privileged activity, it’s one that’s very vital, especially in the northern region. We train teachers who then live here, we train nurses, we train social workers, artists, scientists.”
Fellow striker and Bachelor of Education coordinator Ed Harrison agrees, noting wages paid for UNBC faculty are lower than wages paid at other universities.
“It’s a working climate, right? You’d like to be treated with some respect and fairness, and when you fall further and further behind, it suggests that you’re not being treated fairly or with respect,” he says. ‘The negotiating committee has been working hard for the last eight months and have made no progress, and we would hope a settlement is imminent.”
Strikers in Terrace say they plan to continue protesting until university administrators are willing to negotiate a deal.
Barb Daigle, chief negotiating officer for the UNBC administration, says they are waiting for the faculty union to reach out to them to renegotiate an offer. Talks around an agreement went until 2 a.m. the morning of the strike, when the union eventually declined their latest offer, she says.
“We have been working tirelessly for the past three years to find a way to address the compensation issues. Our faculty salaries have fallen behind our competitor’s because of the structure of it and how it’s designed,” Daigle says.
At the bargaining table, she says administrators presented an offer that would raise tenure faculty to 90 per cent of the way to the competitive wage target, calling the offer a “clear and undeniable commitment to build a structure that will service long-serving faculty members and provide much improved career progression for early career members.”
Daigle says administrators felt frustrated when negotations closed off with no deal in sight.
“The university is a publically funded institution, there’s no more money we can give them. It’s everything we could possibly put on the table.”
However, UNBC union chief negotiator Ted Binnema says they presented a proposal they hoped would “break through on salaries.”
“Unfortunately, at 2:45 a.m. the employer stated that they would consider that proposal only if we agreeed to delay the start of the strike,” Binnema wrote in a posting to the UNBC faculty association website.
“Given the number of unresolved issues that remained and the significant distance between positions, postponement was not an option.”
Binnema also wrote the union is “eager” to settle a collective agreement that “provides as much assurance as possible that students, faculty and staff three years from now will not face the kind of uncertainty – or job action – that they do now.”
While Kotowich-Laval says she understands student frustrations about class cancellations, she encourages students to educate themselves on the issues at hand to gain a better understanding of the bigger picture.
“[The decision to strike] was not taken lightly,” she says. “There are some very serious issues, not just today, but things that will stretch out in terms of keeping the university in a secure place. We just hope that reason prevails and we get recognized, because we’re a hard working group of people who go above and beyond.”
UNBC has more than 3,500 students and about 180 tenure and tenure-track faculty who could be affected by the strike.