How to cover a campus labour dispute

| April 8, 2014
Photo: Karsten Saunders/The Brunswickian

Editor's note: The author is the news editor of the University of New Brunswick's student paper, The Brunswickan and also participated in the #CUPchat.

With campus labour disputes capturing headlines on the east coast in January, the Canadian University Press (CUP) held its monthly #CUPchat, an open forum held on the live blogging platform ScribbleLive. March's edition delved into student journalists' experience covering strikes involving their schools faculty.

Since January, two New Brunswick universities experienced faculty strikes. Reporters from student papers at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), in Fredericton, and Mount Allison University, in Sackville, went online to discuss their experiences. They were joined by Christina Rousseau, a graduate student at Toronto's York University, who was a member of their executive during the university's 2008/2009 strike.

Participants from across Canada chatted about the big issues behind the strikes. At UNB, the big issue was professor wage comparability to other universities in its rank; at Mt. Allison, it was about  "academic mission."

"Mount Allison's strike was triggered by a number of things, but the big one was a desire to 'protect the academic mission,'" said Richard Kent, Editor-in-Chief of the university's student paper The Argosy. "In plain English, that includes proliferating administrative positions at the expense of tenure-track faculty positions, and the relationship between faculty and administrators."

Though both universities experienced strikes, the issues surrounding are happening to universities across Canada as well.

"It's increasingly becoming clear that Canadian universities are relying on the cheaper labour of contract faculty," Rousseau said. "Tuition rates are rising, but the quality of education seems to be ever-decreasing because the people who get the most face time with students are overworked and underpaid."

Besides York University, St. Thomas University, also in Fredericton, and St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, have experienced strikes in recent years. Other universities across the country have been close to striking and more faculty and staff are looking to unionize.

"There was a bunch of universities in B.C. that were close to striking last year," said participant Devan Tasa. "This year, many of the not-unionized faculties have been officially unionizing or are seriously looking at the idea."

The universities include University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University and University of Northern British Columbia according to The Tyee

Also discussed was what makes campus labour disputes unique. One central reason cited was the different stakeholders universities have.

"I think the stakeholder relationships at universities are what sets campus labour disputes apart," said Kent. "Universities have three major stakeholder groups: administrators, faculty and students. Governments and alumni are secondary."

Though whether or not students are universities' biggest stakeholders was up for debate, their presence brings something different to the table.

"I think a unique aspect of these disputes on campus is that students often feel like they are being placed in the middle of conflict, or used as pawns," said Rousseau, who has been both a student and an instructor in a campus labour dispute.

"As someone who has a good relationship with my students, this is difficult because we don't want our students to feel caught in the middle; for the most part, we really do care about the welfare of our students and want them to do well."

At the recent strikes at UNB and MTA, students soon began to mobilize. Though they were not privy to negotiations, they wanted their voices heard.

"We need to stop seeing students as collateral damage and start seeing them for what they are -- primary stakeholders," said Jane Lytvynenko, CUP's incoming National Bureau Chief.

However, what many students cared about during both of the schools' strikes was whether or not they had class the next day.

"I think students can be really short-sighted about university governance, and I think it makes them the most dangerous stakeholder group," Kent said. "As much as I hate to say it, it might be a good thing that we're not invited to the bargaining table."

However, that opinion was not held by everyone in the discussion.

"Students are the paying customers and the most visible and -- arguably -- valuable product of universities. They can't just be brushed off like a spiderweb you walked into accidentally," argued Lytvynenko.

Then there's the questions of whether or not that kind of relationship with students is right.

"I think it's really problematic to think of the student-university relationship as a consumer-business relationship, but in the absence of a better metaphor, it's extremely difficult to say what relationship students ought to have with universities," Kent said.

"I think it should be more of a parental relationship, but realistically we're viewed more as a business transaction," said Lytvynenko.

Discussion then shifted to one of the deeper issues behind the recent strikes, and an issue affecting most universities across Canada: precarious labour.

Many feel universities they have shifted from an academic mentality to a business mentality. All these issues come to a head when the campus reporters try to tackle a labour dispute. Student reporters get conflicting information thrown at them, and often find parties uncooperative when try to tell the true story to their readers.

"One side of our dispute had a tenuous relationship with the truth; the other refused to 'bargain in public' and wouldn't release its proposals," Kent said. "Some things we could verify, some we couldn't. At the end of the day, students are less concerned with the details of a faculty contract than they are with whether or not they have to get up on Monday."

Covering a labour dispute is often something completely new to a campus paper; it's rare for any student journalist to have experience covering labour unions before a strike occurs. No coverage is perfect, and there are always things that could have been done better, or differently. One of the biggest regrets the reporters had was digging deeper and providing better context.

"There's a lot of stuff out there to help you contextualize a strike or a bargaining round," Kent said.

"It's your job as a journalist to figure out what that is and give it to readers."

Cherise Letson is a fourth-year journalism and communications student at St. Thomas University. She's the news editor of The Brunswickan, Canada's oldest official student publication and was this year's Atlantic bureau Chief for the Canadian University Press. 

Photo: Karsten Saunders/The Brunswickian



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