Dalhousie strike could get ugly

If profs walk on Saturday, it may be worse than usual


Dalhousie photo by Robert Alfers on Flickr

It seems there is always some faculty association somewhere in Canada that is either on strike or heading towards one. Just last year, Brandon faculty came through a long and painful strike. Nearly every university has been there at one point or another.

So the news that there may be a faculty strike at Nova Scotia’s largest university on or after Saturday is not particularly surprising.

But some strikes are worse than others, and, while no one can predict the outcome with any certainty, if there is a strike at Dalhousie, it might be worse than most. Here’s why.

This is not the first time. Dalhousie faculty have been on strike four times since 1988—that’s a lot, even by university standards. Strikes are divisive and faculty members’ memories are long. That means there is likely not a reserve of good will between faculty and administration and when things come to a head, cooler heads may not prevail.

It’s already getting nasty. The Dalhousie Faculty Association’s blog just posted a letter from prof Jason Haslam (full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I went to grad school with that guy), blasting the admin for vowing to cut pay to faculty members on leave if there is a strike. When profs are accusing the Board of “forcing sick people to the line,” before the strike has even commenced, it sounds like things may get worse before they get better.

Union support may be soft. The faculty vote to strike was only 83 per cent. That’s actually not a lot considering that such a vote is only to authorize a strike if necessary. That almost one in five faculty didn’t want a strike in any circumstance suggests that there might be dissent in the ranks and that does not bode well if things get tough.

The interminable Halifax transit strike has already frayed the nerves of Haligonians. Including students. Frustrated students may be running out of patience for unions who make their lives harder—even if their cause is just.

There could be another Dal strike at the same time. Dalhousie support staff have also voted in favour of a strike. This matters because universities typically try to put a good face during a faculty strike by pointing out that the university itself remains open and that students can continue to come to campus to study, use the library, and so on. But without support workers, the university might have to close down altogether which could ratchet up tensions even more.

Money is tight. The Nova Scotia government has been cutting university funding, three per cent this year, and that’s on top of a four per cent cut last year. These cuts may lead the university to claim it can’t be flexible on the most pressing issue in this dispute, pensions, and that may lead them to draw a line in the sand.

Of course, it may never come to a strike. I hope it doesn’t. In the mean time, the union has already set up its strike headquarters.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

Looking for details on what a strike would mean for students? Click here.


Dalhousie strike could get ugly

  1. How DARE those prof$ hold the $tudent$ hostage like this. No one supports them. Ugh, you knew what you were getting into being profs…don’t take it out on us.

    • and what role does the university administration play in all this???

  2. Union support is anything but soft: just last week union voted over 90% in support of the negotiating team and in favor of rejecting the latest offer from admin. And this was well after the 82% strike authorization vote. So the union negotiation team has a VERY strong support from the members.

  3. Thanks for publishing – this is a handy survey of what’s happening.

    That said, I wouldn’t characterize an 83 percent strike vote as soft. This is relatively high for a section of the workforce that is generally doing better than most sections of the wider workforce. More importantly, the vote was taken before the administration decided to get nasty around sick leave benefits (you should have been more clear about what this meant, citing the letter that talks about cutting people’s pregnancy leave pay). This has likely softened the 17 percent opposed to the strike.

  4. Are blogs free of normal journalism requirements of balance and fact-checking? This is a messy situation, but “blasting the admin for vowing to cut pay to faculty members on leave if there is a strike” uses inflammatory language not in the letter and ignores crucial context: the administration posted notification, before a strike date had been called, that members on leave (including those on pregnancy/parental leave, or out of the country on research leave) will not receive the same compensation they have during previous strikes. The administration (really, the Board of Governors, few of whom work at Dal or spend significant time there) broke with convention, and arguably did so at a time calculated to exacerbate an already difficult situation.

    And all of this is also beside the point. There is no longer mandatory retirement in Canada, and decent pensions are the only way of ensuring the ongoing fiscal and intellectual health of our universities: we need to make it feasible, even attractive, for senior faculty to retire so that they can be replaced by (much-less-costly) junior faculty. Attacking university pension plans in this new environment is short-sighted and fiscally unsound.

    Look back through the archives. A common university response to financial crisis in the mid-1990s was to offer generous early retirement packages to senior faculty and replace them with junior faculty. It not only resolved the short-term financial crisis but helped keep universities afloat until the economic wheel turned again.

    • To be clear, I don’t think I said the Haslam letter was uncalled for, only that it clearly shows hard feelings before the strike (if there is one) has begun.

      Haslam writes, for instance, “No answers you can give will make this decision any more ethical, or return to the administration and board the common decency they have seemingly set aside in reversing this common practice, nor will any answers make this terrible job you have to do any easier or more morally acceptable.”

      So let’s see: unethical, indecent, terrible, and immoral. Sounds like blasting to me.

  5. I was told the strike vote was actually closer to 63%, as anyone who abstained from the vote was automatically counted as a “yes” vote for the strike. As for the comment that the profs are holding the students hostage, that is a bit hyperbolic if not simplistic as well (but seems to be a fairly general mood on campus). Almost all of my profs have genuinely shown they are concerned for the students, and have done everything to alter assignment due dates to ease the stress of the strike. Hearing what is really up for debate, I would say the DFA needs a better PR team, because as students the only updates we get are from ADMIN. Makes you wonder which side of the story the first commenter has heard…?

    • No–any non-vote counted as a no-vote. Students can read DFA updates at dfa.ns.ca .

    • fairly general mood? the general mood as you put it is related to the fact no one has any idea what is really going on. Personally, I feel the university has tried to really down play the severity of this strike. Obviously students have the most to lose, which is why they are and will continue to, at least, make it appear they are doing whatever they can to fix it. But, in my opinion this strike is not only going to happen but will also be long drawn out well beyond the summer term. Lets hope I am wrong.

  6. Profdal,

    As you know, the 90% vote was to reject an offer that was already obsolete. The Board’s initial offer was made on the final day of conciliation, and the Administration made clear that it was not their final offer and that they wished to continue negotiations. Why the vote was not 100% I cannot understand (when the Board essentially said ‘don’t take this’). You also know that the original strike vote, taken before the Board’s offer, was 82.9% of the 78% of DFA members who voted, even though members were urged to vote BECAUSE NOT VOTING WAS EQUIVALENT TO A NO VOTE. We were told that the percentage of the vote was that of the total membership, and I can only guess that this means that some people who were assured (falsely) that their failure to vote was a ‘no’ vote did not in the end have their ‘vote’ counted. The fact that the DFA reported not only to the media but its own members the misleading percentage (83%) is in one sense unsettling, though it might indicate that the DFA is in the same league as the Admin, who have few scruples about manipulating numbers in their own favour.

  7. I am forced to think that this is not a problem created by the faculty alone; it is a problem created by the Faculty and Administration in concert. Seems to me that with a record of 4 strikes in 24 years, neither group involved in this dispute holds much responsibility towards the student body or the greater community they are meant to serve. And I do mean serve. I understand there have been recent shortfalls in Provincial funding, but it is still public money my friends. Add to that the fact that the fees at Dal are higher than a lot of other fines schools in Canada, and I only feel more let down and frustrated. Had I know facility might be in a position to strike now, and the terrible record of both faculty and the administration to manage themselves, I would not have agreed to send my son there.

    As for if and when the strike may happen, I would contend that it already has. I studied my way through a strike by support staff at UBC and although classes continued to run, it was a huge distraction to all of us. I sense that in this current situation, students are not getting too much done at Dal this week.

    What a waste.

    • The fact that the Dalhousie faculty have been without a contract since the end of June 2011 was certainly public information and should be considered by prospective students given Dal’s history of labour relations.

      The government of Nova Scotia just announced permanent solvency relief for the Dalhousie Pension Plan which makes me wonder if the DFA was simply used to force the government’s hand.

  8. This article has been a waste.

    The government has stepped in and awarded the DFA a permanent solvency.

    Issue is now resolved. No more strike

  9. The government awarded the UNIVERSITY (not the DFA) solvency relief under the current pension plan (which applies to a number of bargaining groups, not just the DFA). I agree with the earlier poster….the Board was using the DFA as a tool to force the government on this issue, and would have used the NSGEU as well if necessary. It remains to be seen if the Board will now bargain in good faith, but given their past performance in 3 other strikes, I don’t think they are capable of that. The amount of misleading information (…well, lies) disseminated by the Board and the President’s office during these negotiations has been astonishing.

  10. First, it appears that “The Nova Scotia Department of Labour and Advanced Education has notified Dalhousie that an Order in Council has been issued that will provide short-term solvency relief for the university pension plan”. So this is not permanent, it’s short term since it will only exist for 2 years. And this may factor in current negotiations, however, the reality of the situation is that the pension problem is still there for this Dalhousie!

    Secondly, to another poster’s comment, shame on me for not checking on this school’s history in labour relations and status before agreeing to send my child there. Do I ever feel stupid!

    Thirdly, I have told my child to fly home tonight and will certainly consider transfering to another university next year. Not that it’s any better here in Ontario, but paying a premium for this is a joke! I might as well save money and spend it in my own province!

    • Dont be so hasty. Dont fly till the strike is for sure. Looks like it might not happen after all.

    • Where can I find that quote please?

    • Please don’t issue false information — things are confusing enough. The Order in Council to which you refer was issued in April of 2011.

      Today the Dal administration refers to “the news from the Government of Nova Scotia regarding permanent solvency relief for the University Pension Plan”.

  11. As a student, I have to disagree with many previous posters. Most of my professors have been extremely helpful, explaining the situation (many of them in a relatively unbiased way) and trying to help us plan for the eventuality of a strike. I know that I, and many of my friends, are sympathetic to the professors and support their right to strike to protect their pensions.
    As for the government-awarded solvency, the only real information on it has come from the Dal Admin. It remains to be seen whether this development is as helpful as it would appear to be, and whether it will be enough to diffuse the now-declared intent to strike.
    There is a huge lack of information going around, with the majority of info available to affected groups coming from extremely biased sources or from Twitter. I’d like to see a LOT more communication with students.

  12. I can’t believe the nerve of these profs. They’re in classing, trying so hard to fake caring that strike is happening. Like they really care about the students. They care about one thing…money. Just legislate these greedy people back to work right away.

    • It is incredibly stressful to be forced into strike action so that the university can save some money. Who is going to pay the mortgage, the daycare, and buy the food?

  13. As a student, I have to say that it has been stressful wondering what may or may not happen. However, all you can do is plan to have your assignments done on time and hope for the best. All of my professors have been very helpful during this time. A couple of them have, very openly, disclosed that they think the strike is an awful situation and not at all what they are hoping for. It would be hard for a group of people who have been expecting something like a pension to find out that it may not be available as planned. All parties (students, parents, faculty, the board, etc.) should try to be compassionate and realize that it is not an easy situation for anyone involved.

  14. It is quite dissappointing to hear that there will be a strike. Many parents and students spend so much of their money when attending from out of province. We pay for tuition, accommodations and air fare to attend Dal.
    This puts quite a stress on family finances and when a strike occurs this puts an even greater financial burden on the family. It is frustrating not knowing if these students should stay in Halifax or spend money for them to come home. Then there is the uncertainty of not knowing if the school year will be extended resulting in additional costs.
    After what we saw at York University a few years ago I don’t believe that university s should be allowed to strike. The only ones who lose are the students and their families.

  15. I have to agree with the other few Dal students that have posted; my professors have been incredibly supportive and understanding about the situation, and have done everything they can to minimize the possible issues involved if we do go on strike, from giving us our assignments ahead of time so we can work over the strike period, to actually organizing classes outside the regular time to minimize the impact if we had to have an extended term period. Over all they’ve been amazing, and I understand their need to strike in regards to their pensions and other issues.

    I’ve lived through a few strikes and work to rule before, and to be frank, I’m finding the transit strike being more a frying of my nerves then anything the professors could do…

  16. Although Im not a dal student, we all should think about this one simple fact. Tuition prices are rising, but we are more education cuts then ever!

  17. Dal seems to have established quite a reputation for faculty strikes and that is a shame. It seems that in the clashes between the administration and professors, student welfare is largely an afterthought. Its not so much that professors don’t care at all (though I’m sure there are some exceptions), but they are caught in an impossible situation. They need to protect their own retirement,(something that is becoming increasingly difficult for the average Canadian) , while still trying to fulfill their commitment to their students. As for the administration, they are being placed in a increasingly difficult position with ongoing government cuts. The same problem is being faced by UNB as the “brilliant” Alward government has taken a very unfriendly stance towards post-secondary education. Both the federal and provincial governments need to learn that funding education is not a financial burden, but an investment for a more prosperous future.

  18. I am DISGUSTED by the anti-prof talk here. It is blindingly clear to ANYBODY who has spent even a moment researching this strike that the administration is being incredibly unfair and essentially bullies. Right now, profs need our support as students. Yes, this blows, but siding AGAINST the profs is siding WITH the administration. You are essentially supporting what caused this in the first place. Please next time do more research before condemning what you don’t understand.