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Province looks at right-to-strike legislation on campus

By Scott Strasser, November 3 2015 —

The provincial government is considering changes to the labour laws of the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA) that could impact university staff’s ability to strike.

The reassessment is in response to a January 2015 Supreme Court decision that recognizes a Charter-protected right to strike when collective-agreement negotiations break down. 

Under the PSLA’s current labour laws, university staff associations can only settle bargaining disputes through the process of binding arbitration.

In binding arbitration, a third-party arbitrator makes a decision that must be honoured by both parties and cannot be appealed to a court of law.

Changes to the PSLA could give academic staff associations and teaching assistants across the province the right to lawfully strike when binding arbitration does not result in a satisfactory resolution.

“In our case we feel binding arbitration is a useful tool,” said Graduate Students’ Association president Mike Webster. “It’s a tool we respect and in the past has given us sufficient — let’s call it leverage — to ensure we have a smooth collective bargaining process.”

Webster said the GSA has never used binding arbitration to settle disputes in their collective agreements.

“We have a good relationship with administration in terms of negotiating our collective agreement,” Webster said. “We’ve always emerged from negotiations with a better deal for our teaching assistants.”

The University of Calgary Faculty Association (TUCFA) has never attempted to go on strike. TUCFA declined to comment at this time.

Recent faculty strikes have occurred in other provinces. More than 1,000 University of New Brunswick faculty members went on strike for three weeks in January 2014 demanding higher pay and better working conditions.

Academic staff at the University of Northern British Columbia went on strike for two weeks in March 2015. The strike resulted in a cancelled reading week to make up for lost class time.

The provincial government is simultaneously reviewing strike and lockout bans in legislation like the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA). Changes to this legislation would apply to non-academic staff at post-secondary institutions.

Tom Fuller, a senior research advisor with the Alberta Union of Public Employees, is in favour of the new legislation. He said the right to strike addresses the power imbalance between employers and employees.

“What the Supreme Court has recognized is that the right to strike is fundamental to the right to freedom of association,” Fuller said. “The previous regime of compulsory binding arbitration failed in terms of allowing people to exercise their associational rights.”

The provincial government is consulting with post-secondary stakeholders throughout November to gauge feedback on the potential legislative changes. Legislation manager with Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education Bart Muusse sent discussion guides to the U of C Students’ Union and GSA to ask how a faculty strike would impact students.

“Many of our graduate students are here on federally funded scholarships. Those often have timelines associated with them in terms of completion milestones that could be jeopardized by a prolonged strike,” Webster said.

As 26 per cent of graduate students at the U of C are international students, Webster also has concerns with how a strike would affect their immigration status.

“Many of our graduates’ visas are tied to their status as students and we have major concerns if the faculty association or another group were to go on strike and jeopardize those kinds of things from an immigration point of view,” Webster said.

The SU’s University Relations Committee (URC) drafted their response to Muusse on Oct. 14. Since most recent faculty strikes resulted in tuition fee refunds, the SU’s response mainly focused on the need for students to be reimbursed.

“Yes, workers have the Chartered right to strike. But there are some serious consequences when your studies and learning are interrupted — interrupted classes, loss in tuition, effects to your GPA and your job offers,” said SU vice-president external Romy Garrido.

The SU’s draft also mentions the impact of a non-academic staff strike on students.

“[A strike] could cause interruptions to basic services that students need on campus, like the Dining Centre,” Garrido said. “We’d have to think about what could happen to students living in residence.”

Fuller said strikes often negatively affect third parties, but are sometimes necessary.

“It’s true of any kind of labour dispute that there’s the capacity to affect third parties,” Fuller said. “It’s not as though unions are insensitive to inconveniencing third parties, but we’re talking about a fundamental constitutional right here.”

The discussion guide provided by Muusse to the SU and GSA suggests that labour law amendments to the PSLA could occur in 2016.

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