Some of the faculty at Edmonton's Concordia University form a picket line Tuesday with the Magrath Mansion in the background. Credit: Christina Gray / Facebook

With labour disputes looming at three Alberta public universities, it came as a surprise when the faculty association at a small private university in Edmonton became the first in the province’s  history to walk off the job in a legal strike.

But at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, some of the 82 full-time professors, librarians, lab instructors and other academic employees of Concordia University of Edmonton formed a picket line outside the Magrath Mansion, the historic structure recently acquired by the university in the Alberta capital’s Highlands neighbourhood.

The Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association filed legal strike notice on Dec. 22, telling the university’s administration that if there was no deal by the New Year there would be a strike. After bargaining through the holiday break without an agreement, the faculty walked.

Sessional instructors at CUE are not in the bargaining unit, but the administration immediately shut down all classes, halted the winter term, and told the sessionals they won’t be paid. 

Most people who pay attention to Alberta’s post-secondary institutions probably would have bet the first faculty strike in the province’s history would be at Athabasca University, nominally located in the town of Athabasca, the University of Lethbridge, or Calgary’s Mount Royal University. 

After all, faculty associations at both the U of L and MRU are now in formal mediation, part of a process required to get them to a place they can legally exercise the strike weapon to get a fair deal. 

At AU, the faculty association has been in negotiations for nine months without the administration so much as tabling a full offer or even saying what its monetary position is. The association expects to reach an essential service agreement on Feb. 1, after which it too can apply for formal mediation. 

Meanwhile, back at CUE, the secularized former Lutheran seminary accredited under the Post-Secondary Learning Act appears to have no shortage of money or worries about attracting enough students.

Unlike public institutions that have been hit hard by the Kenney Government’s brutal cuts to post-secondary education, enrolment is up at CUE — currently at about 2,500 students — and cash is plentiful. 

Like most of Alberta’s private universities, CUE received no cuts in funding from the Alberta Government. It’s been able to record a combined operating surplus of close to $20 million over the past two years. Its bargaining team isn’t bound by the secret government mandates imposed by United Conservative Party legislation to interfere with good-faith bargaining at public sector post-secondary institutions. 

It even had enough cash on hand to pay $1.75 million to buy the drafty looking mansion down the street from its small campus — helped along by a $1.425-million gift from the mansion’s previous owners, who’d had it on the market for a year without a sale. The university hopes to get the property rezoned from residential. 

So you would have thought, observed Athabasca University Labour Studies Professor Bob Barnetson, “that Concordia could offer more than zeros” — which he noted was the last offer made public by the administration on social media. 

CUEFA President Glynis Price said the association’s “reasonable salary offers” were rejected by the university. 

A statement she provided on the strike notes that “we are at the bottom of the sector across Canada when matched against comparator universities. … We are seeking fair compensation that is comparable to those professors at similar institutions in Canada.” 

The statement also said the university’s bylaws were recently changed by the Board of Governors so President Tim Loreman’s salary would be “guided by the compensation paid to presidents of an agreed set of comparator universities. 

“We would be happy to have our salaries guided by the same set of comparator universities,” the statement added.

Also at issue are faculty intellectual property rights, discipline, and workload, especially for librarians, lab instructors and placement co-ordinators. 

Perhaps CUE’s administration tried playing hardball and discovered CUEFA’s 82 members were harder to intimidate than expected. If so, they need to find a way to get back to the bargaining table. After all, a long strike is going to have a serious impact on the university’s revenue, which is heavily dependent on tuition, including from foreign students. 

Maybe CUE Chancellor Stephen Mandel — a former Edmonton mayor, Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, and Alberta Party leader — could have a chat with Loreman and the board to persuade them to make a better offer. 

That would a reasonable use of Mandel’s political skills, don’t you think?  

As expected, no delay to return of in-person K-12 classes Monday

No surprise, tens of thousands of Alberta K-12 students will be returning to their classes in person on Monday, Omicron variant or no Omicron variant. 

Education Minister Adriana Lagrange announced the return to regular classes “with the added safety of access to rapid tests and medical-grade masks that will be distributed through schools” at a news conference and COVID-19 update with Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw yesterday afternoon. 

While critics did not dispute the benefits of in-person instruction, their criticisms focused on inadequate safety measures, notwithstanding LaGrange’s claims.

“I think we’re going to see a repeat of what we saw last year … when we were in class, and out of class, in class, and out of class,” said Alberta Teachers Association President Jason Schilling after LaGrange’s newser yesterday. 

“The association has not been consulted on any of these plans for return to school,” he said. 

Opposition education critic Sarah Hoffman shared Schilling’s assessment.

Measures adopted by other Canadian provinces to promote safer classroom learning have been ignored by the UCP government, she said.

“No HEPA filters. No N95 masks. No carbon dioxide monitors. No contact tracing. No reporting to parents if their child was sitting next to another student with a positive test that day. No funding for the inevitable demand for additional staff. The UCP plan is setting schools up to close.” 

“Albertans cannot trust the UCP to keep their kids safe,” she concluded. 

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...