Professors Pushed to the Edge

The University of Lethbridge faculty strike.

By Trevor Harrison

It’s a cold winter’s day in Lethbridge, the sky a kind of pot-metal grey. The flags fly stiff at the university’s main entrance. In normal times my faculty colleagues and I would be in our offices. I’d be just getting back from teaching my 9:00 a.m. Canadian Society class. But nothing about the past two years has been normal. There was the pandemic, of course. We dutifully masked, distanced and washed hands. We shifted to online teaching. It was tough, but all of us—faculty, staff and students—adjusted.

Today is different. We’re standing beside University Drive, barred from the campus because we’re on strike. The word “strike” seems strange to me, alien to my role as a professor. I look around at my colleagues. Some are carrying placards reading “Fair wages for teaching!” and “Fair workloads.” Others are huddled over warm coffee and waving at passing vehicles.

How did it come to this?

That’s a good question, the answer to which goes back a few years and leads to some even bigger questions about the future of post-secondary education in Alberta.

Students supporting U of L faculty, March 11, 2022. Students wanted to go back to class, but they were also concerned about the direction the university was taking. For years they’d seen classes get larger, courses get cancelled and full-time faculty disappear. Photo: University of Lethbridge Faculty Association.

I started work at the University of Lethbridge in summer 2002. I had spent nearly a decade as a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta. I was, as is said, “long in the tooth,” even by the standard of most late-starting academics. Despite four published books and a teaching award, I was on the verge of leaving the profession. The insecurity of term-to-term contracts and low wages, with no benefits, made it difficult to raise a family, let alone continue to do research. Getting a position at Lethbridge saved my career.

My first few years at the U of L were a huge blessing. I taught a regular bank of courses. I supervised graduate students and taught independent and applied studies courses to individual students. I researched, wrote and gave public talks on various public issues. I worked with smart and engaging colleagues. My family and I became part of a growing community, involved in the arts, recreation and public affairs.

The drastic cuts of the early Klein years were in the rearview mirror. Alberta’s post-secondary sector in the early 2000s was growing to meet the needs of a young and expanding population. Undergraduate student numbers at the U of L increased and graduate programs grew. Our school was becoming a nationally recognized and respected institution for its teaching and research alike.

But things began to change. As always, the province’s finances were over-reliant on resource royalties. No government was willing to deal with the instabilities of boom and bust and the problems it created for public institutions. When the bust hit—as it did from 2014 to 2021—public services, including the post-secondary sector, felt the blow.

In the downturn’s early years, staff at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions, including the University of Lethbridge, accepted that there would be no increases to our pay. One year, we went without an expected cost-of-living bonus. Faculty knew we had a part to play in weathering the fiscal storm. Still, we also believed the provincial government valued faculty and our role not simply to train but to educate students to be critical thinkers and participatory citizens. Further, we believed our voices on decisions affecting the post-secondary system were being heard.

These beliefs vanished after the United Conservative Party’s victory in 2019. Elected on a platform of severe austerity, the new government showed itself fundamentally opposed to the notion of public services. One of its first acts was to commission a report into Alberta’s finances, with its findings already predetermined. The MacKinnon Report was intended to set the stage for cuts, and it dutifully argued that Alberta’s public sector workers were overpaid. But the report also ignored—because it was told to ignore—Alberta Treasury Board data showing the province’s fiscal difficulties are the result of low tax revenues, not high expenditures.

The MacKinnon Report was followed by a full-frontal assault on the post-secondary sector in the form of cuts. The operating budgets for Alberta post-secondary institutions shrank by 18.8 per cent between 2018/2019 and 2022/2023, or by $4.6-billion. The University of Lethbridge’s operating budget has been cut by 21 per cent since 2019/2020.

This was followed by Advanced Education’s release of Alberta 2030. That document lays out a 10-year plan for turning local post-secondary institutions into little more than skills-training centres, at the behest of business, and evaluating their performance based on numbers related to graduates’ employment—e.g., an institution would get more public money the higher its graduates’ incomes. The same document makes clear the government’s intention to steadily withdraw responsibility for funding post-secondary, forcing institutions to rely more on marketizing their research and raising tuition. It also portends a drastic transition from full-time faculty towards “just-in-time” teachers—low paid and replaceable sessionals—and a lessening of faculty input into program development and delivery.

As contract negotiations began at the University of Lethbridge in 2019/20, faculty were further angered by Kafka-esque ministerial directives given by government to boards of all post-secondary institutions. We knew the directives existed; the boards told us. But their precise details about wage limits were hidden and still remain so. Our faculty association was left attempting to bargain in a landscape whose boundaries were never clear.

By early 2022, grievances at Alberta’s post-secondary institutions were at a boiling point. On January 4 Edmonton’s private Concordia University went on strike. It lasted 11 days. Mount Royal University narrowly averted a strike through an agreement in principle on February 14. On April 4 Athabasca University faculty voted strongly in favour of striking, were locked out by administration, and reached a tentative settlement three days later. Today, labour relations continue to simmer at Alberta’s two largest universities in Calgary and Edmonton.

Sandwiched between these events, faculty at the University of Lethbridge walked out on February 10.

This was the first legal strike at a public university in Alberta.

The decision to strike is never an easy one, but it’s perhaps particularly hard for academics. We’d much rather be teaching, meeting with students or continuing research that in some cases we’ve been conducting for decades. But also, the idea of engaging in labour conflict is anathema to many faculty. This was especially true at the University of Lethbridge when I arrived there 20 years ago. It was a “small c” conservative place in a “big C” conservative region of the province. Today, despite the two-term electoral success of NDP MLA Shannon Phillips, whose riding encompasses the main campus, Lethbridge’s culture remains largely inhospitable to union activism, especially by academics, whom many Albertans view as overpaid and doing work that’s obscure or unnecessary. And yet, here we are. The strike vote held in early February was approved by an astonishing 92 per cent of all faculty members.

As the strike began, faculty had been without a contract for more than 600 days. To say negotiations between the two sides had not gone well would be an understatement; more precisely, they hadn’t gone anywhere. Every effort on the part of faculty to negotiate a fair agreement—one that also included many non-monetary issues such as workload and the recognition of instructors’ research and service in yearly evaluations—had been rebuffed. The board’s response had been to stonewall or say “there’s nothing to negotiate.”

We were a varied group of picketers: an assortment of faculty types, including sessional and term instructors, academic assistants, professional librarians and professors, and people of all shapes and sizes, genders, backgrounds and ages. We took up positions at three entrances to Lethbridge’s main west side campus. I was at site #1, the main entrance. Others picketed a small downtown branch, and still others the university’s Calgary campus. A mood of optimism set in—surely the strike would end quickly.

This was a new experience for all of us. Indeed, it was the first-ever legal strike at a public university in Alberta. Before 2017, academic staff in this province had been prohibited by law from striking. As our strike began, some politicians and U of L administrators blamed the previous NDP government for instituting a union-friendly law, but this was inaccurate. The legislative change had resulted from a Supreme Court ruling, dealing with Saskatchewan, that in turn made Alberta’s existing anti-strike law unconstitutional. Alberta’s NDP government had little choice in the matter.

It was also the administration’s first experience of a strike. Their first act, on February 11, was to lock us out. This was expected. Of greater surprise, however, was the imposition of unnecessarily provocative restrictions, including the loss of email and of physical access to labs and offices, thus disabling contact with our students and preventing ongoing research.

Administration told us we would be prosecuted if we stepped onto university property, but they wouldn’t tell us where the property lines are. They further informed us that porta-potties were prohibited. The Faculty Association drew a chalk line along the boulevard to demarcate the boundary, and porta-potties were brought in. Administration hired private security. They parked in cars, snapping photos of us. Wide-angle surveillance cameras, positioned high on posts like eagle nests, were also installed. Some faculty were offended by what they viewed as intimidation tactics. The mood quickly changed. There was a sense administration had declared war on faculty.

U of L faculty, March 11, 2022. Strikers wore orange pinnies and marched or waved to passerby, some of whom honked in support. Photo: Trevor Harrison.

The term “war” may seem strong, but it was in many ways an apt metaphor. The Faculty Association set up a downtown command centre. Each weekday, we—“the troops”—checked in for our assigned three-hour shift, three per day between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., for which we received strike pay. We were “commanded” by strike captains. We wore uniforms: orange pinnies. We marched or stood at sentry posts, waving to passersby; some honked in support. Each day, a small battalion of older colleagues occupied folding chairs at their roadside redoubt. We held high our chosen weapons—placards, some declaring our demands, some wryly humorous (“It’s so bad even the introverts are here”). Rallies were held, replete with our demands chanted over loudspeakers.

Lines of supply were organized. By way of a canteen, the association set up a table sporting coffee and sweets, but faculty and community members soon began contributing pots of stew, curried dishes and chili. Umami, a well-known local grocery and deli, provided sandwiches. A communications unit was also created, both to inform faculty members and to counter what members viewed as administration’s misinformation to the public, such as misrepresenting our salary demands and implying that the Faculty Association was the side refusing to negotiate.

We remained hopeful of an early settlement. Most of us believed Reading Week, beginning February 19, would provide the opportunity for sober, serious negotiation, and that we would soon be back teaching and in our research labs. But it didn’t happen. Hope vanished, replaced by anger. Many now saw the administration as engaging in a war of attrition: that it wanted to wait us out, to figuratively starve us into submission in order to balance its books with our lost wages, to perhaps even bust the union.

The mood on the picket line hardened. Our sense of solidarity and resolve deepened. You could hear it in the camaraderie between colleagues and see it in the determined trudge through snow and mud, pickets held high. We were soon buoyed by colleagues arriving from other universities in Alberta and elsewhere to lend support, along with other union members. Some community members and a few New Democrat politicians also dropped by. Especially, however, there were our students.

Young and passionate, they literally stood with us. Several carried signs of their own making: “We stand behind U of L faculty” and “No faculty, no future.” The students wanted to go back to class—online, for now. But they were also concerned about the direction their university was taking. For years they had seen classes get larger, courses get cancelled, and full-time faculty, whom they rely on for guidance, disappear.

For some students, however, the strike/lockout was also an education. Beth, a third-year political science student, noted the event’s role in group formation, a topic discussed in class. Chad, a philosophy major who is studying the language of couples conflict, similarly noted the applicability of his research to the strike/lockout.

Late February saw 30 students stage sit-ins outside the university’s administrative offices. They sang songs and demanded that the board engage seriously in negotiations to end the strike. The administration’s response was to install a camera in the hall. Otherwise, nothing changed. On March 12 faculty held a rally at Lethbridge City Hall in support of students.

The sense of solidarity on the picket lines grew. The atmosphere could even be fun. One professor came dressed in a T-Rex outfit, bearing a sign, “Let’s make a dino-mite deal.” We held a Mardi Gras breakfast, complete with pancakes. Some picketers came dressed up, with prizes for best costume. A student orchestra played steel drums; on other days, a horn section.

People brought their animals: dogs in abundance, a small cat on a leash. On another day, two retired faculty rode horses to site #1. Very Lethbridge.

It was now mid-March. We were standing in that seasonal dead zone between winter and spring—what a friend terms “sprinter”—a combination of snow, drizzle, sun and fog. The best days are warm (never hot); the worst are cold. I was glad for hand and toe warmers. On the first day of striking, a picketer had fallen on ice and been injured. The faculty association called off picketing for the rest of that day. Later, as temperatures dropped to freezing, picketing was suspended for a couple of days. But on better days we enlarged our perimeter. Some of us hiked over the bridge on Whoop-Up Drive, the main thoroughfare joining west Lethbridge to our downtown campus. We carried flags and signs, braced like sails against the Lethbridge winds. It felt good.

We continued to march, to raise our voices and our signs. Was anyone listening?

Term-to-term contracts and low wages, with no benefits, make it difficult for an academic to raise a family.

Every conflict has multiple causes. Letters in the Lethbridge Herald suggested some members of the public thought we were striking over wages. This was true only to a point. Faculty salaries at the U of L have fallen steadily against inflation and by comparison with similar institutions over the past decade. But several of us on the picket line were recently retired or—like myself—are soon to be retired. We were there out of loyalty to an institution we helped build and out of a sense of fairness betrayed.

Money does matter a great deal to some faculty, however, especially to our sessional and instructor colleagues. Take the case of Bruce. He has taught multiple courses in three different departments over nearly a decade, with no marking support. He’s an academic Swiss army knife, ready to step in and teach courses at a moment’s notice. Administration gives him lots of praise, but no security and only a meagre paycheque with no benefits. (As negotiations began, the yearly salary of the highest-paid sessional instructor was $39,000.) Bruce supplements his salary by teaching at a nearby college and by writing independent reports.

Term instructors are not much better off than sessional teachers: only slightly more job security and slightly higher pay, with benefits. But they too are overworked—teaching seven to eight course equivalents per year, often requiring new preparations—and underappreciated, with no credit for writing and research, though many do it. One long-term instructor informed me during the strike/lockout that strike pay meant she would likely pocket more money during the dispute than when she was teaching! Sessional teachers did comparatively even better, some earning three times their usual salary.

So, yes, money does matter for some individual faculty. But the issue was also one of fairness and equity. And many of us fear post-secondary institutions cannot survive if faculty are reduced to underpaid, overworked, transient members of the precariat.

One prominent picket sign read “Respect, Equity, Parity.” I heard that first word repeatedly as I walked the line. A sense of disrespect by government and administration permeated talk. Long-time faculty spoke of decision-making being increasingly top-down and non-collegial. Administrative appointments made without significant faculty input was a particular sore point.

Things had come to a head during the year leading up to the strike/lockout, when administration had presented to faculty its restructuring plans meant to deal with the government budget cuts. The process involved numerous task forces, meetings and presentations, gestures that administration viewed as consultation but which many faculty felt were highly orchestrated to reach predetermined outcomes. Many faculty especially doubted administration’s repeated claims that restructuring wouldn’t mean the end of certain courses and programs. While everything remains unsettled, the phony consultation contributed to a general feeling that faculty’s voice in decision-making wasn’t being respected and that collegial governance had to be restored.

Faculty felt “consultations” were orchestrated to reach predetermined outcomes.

Tuesday, March 15. Anger and frustration were rising. Rumour and gossip were rife. But on that day, spirits on the picket lines were also high. The Board and the Faculty Association were meeting through a mediator. Previous meetings in December and January hadn’t been successful, but the situation was different now. We had taken the measure of each other, and no one was winning.

The initial news was mildly positive and it soon got better. By Friday, March 18, a tentative agreement was reached. All that was required was ratification by both sides.

The strike/lockout officially ended on March 21. Over 90 per cent of faculty approved the deal. The Board agreed to destroy the surveillance video tapes. The Faculty Association agreed to drop the filing—made a few days earlier—of an unfair labour practice complaint. We returned to our “barracks,” relieved to be going back to our teaching and research.

What did the strike achieve? Faculty, as a whole, made few monetary gains. But sessional teachers received an 8 per cent increase to their stipend, though the highest salary will still be only $7,020 per course. Instructors received percentage increases less than inflation, and not kicking in until 2023, but did gain a rise in their salary cap. Little progress was made on non-monetary issues, though we succeeded in defending some rights and benefits. And we gained recognition of the rights, privileges and responsibilities of faculty members to participate in the making of policies and procedures, as well as membership on a number of governing committees. Still, many faculty remain disappointed at the settlement and angry at the government and administration for having provoked a dispute that harmed students, faculty and the university’s reputation.

We held a final rally on March 21. It was likely the last time many of us will get together. When I drove by site #1 a few days later, I imagined picketers still walking, waving, holding signs: proud, undefeated. Sometimes you fight not because you think you’ll win, but because you have no other choice, and trying to avoid that choice only costs you something more: your self-respect. We faculty at the University of Lethbridge came out of the strike stronger, more unified and more determined than before. That solidarity may well prove to be the strike’s long-term legacy.

Trevor Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and a former director of the Parkland Institute.

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