“We want to reclaim this university,” says St. Francis Xavier Association of University Teachers president Peter McInnis. That’s the message that faculty members carried as they took to the picket lines Monday commencing an unprecedented strike at the campus in Antigonish, N.S.
After eight months of talks, the administration and union failed to reach an agreement on pay and other issues. In the last round of bargaining faculty proposed a 9.3 per cent wage increase over three years, according to the AUT. The administration offered 6.2 per cent over four years.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 report, assistant professors at St. FX made a median of $74,377 in 2010-11 while full professors earned a median of $123,673. The average assistant professor’s salary nationwide was $91,035 and the average full professor’s salary was $143,366.
Professors, lab instructors, librarians and writing center workers all hit the pavement at 7:30 a.m. Monday forcing the postponement of classes for the foreseeable future and causing uncertainty for the school’s more than 4,000 students.
Students’ Union President Nick Head-Petersen and his executive worked feverishly throughout the morning fielding questions from students and media requests. “We don’t know what’s going to happen and I think that uncertainty has caused a lot of stress for students,” says Head-Peterson.
The Students’ Union will stage a protest of its own on Wednesday in support of a deal. The union says it will remain neutral. “Our biggest goal this week as an organization is getting the two parties back at the table,” says Head-Petersen.
Rachel Mitchell, Vice-President of the Students’ Union, says it has been difficult to get a read on the overall mood of the student body as many are staying away from campus while others have already headed home until the conflict is resolved. “I think a lot of students were expecting it, but a lot of them are saying, ‘now what?’ and ‘how long is this going to go?'”
Jessie McEwen, VP of Student Relations, adds that many are feeling “highly stressed,” but others are taking a more lighthearted view. “There’s a certain novelty factor around this,” she says. “Some people have definite time frames in their head of how long this is going to last. They’re thinking, I’ll drink these three nights and then the strike will be over.”
Patrick LeClair, a second-year student, says his peers are concerned about wasted tuition. “We’re spending a lot of money to basically sit around at a summer camp with our friends,” he says.
Third-year student Laura O’Brien put it more bluntly: “students are being held ransom for money essentially,” she says, “but I really support our professors.”
Despite conflict over wages, AUT President McInnis says that what troubles him most isn’t money, but instead drifting away from the academic mission. The administration “has been really focused on the brand of the university, but they do it in a surface way that’s really shallow,” he says.
The AUT has accused the administration throughout negotiations of putting too much funding into the outward appearance of campus and new infrastructure—for example by building two new residences—while neglecting those who work directly with students. McInnis says students are on side. “They do understand that the academic mission of the university has been compromised.”