University of New Brunswick students were given some hope Thursday, after the province appointed a conciliation board to bring an end to a collective bargaining stalemate that has, until now, made a faculty strike seem all but a foregone conclusion.
After negotiations broke down between the university and the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers (AUNBT) at the beginning of February, things were looking grim and the possibility of a strike loomed.
Previously, both parties had been working with a conciliation officer, a neutral representative who could make suggestions during negotiations. These talks concluded on Feb. 3 with several issues still undecided, and the parties entered into a waiting period before potentially going to a strike or a lockout.
To break the deadlock, Donald Arseneault, minister for post-secondary education in New Brunswick, announced the formation of a conciliation board to look into the remaining issues on the table between the two parties.
The formation of the board is a rare move in labour negotiations, but the appointment of the conciliation board prevents the possibility of a strike or lockout until after the board has filed its non-binding report. According to a document on the AUNBT website, this can take at least a month. AUNBT also stated that although they are surprised by the minister’s decision, they will work with the conciliation board in good faith.
In a joint press release, the administration and the union stated that “Both AUNBT and the UNB administration continue to share the goal of supporting the communities around us and of making UNB a better place to study and work.”
Both sides have agreed to a media blackout and said that “All communication with the media regarding negotiations will be by way of joint statements at this time.”
However, the Daily Gleaner reported Friday that it had obtained a faculty union “internal bargaining bulletin” that outlined AUNBT’s position. According to the Gleaner, the union says it is rejecting the university’s salary proposal that would see wages frozen for the first two years of a contract, and increase by two per cent during the final two years.
“This moves average salaries at UNB drastically downwards relative to other universities so that the average assistant professor at UNB will be earning 15 per cent less than if they were working at St. Thomas University, 12 per cent less than at Mount Allison or 35 per cent less than Queen’s University,” the internal document reads.
Jon O’Kane, president of the UNB Student Union, feels that the appointment of the conciliation board is a positive decision that will help settle the discussion.
“Negotiations are going to happen in a more thorough, rigorous way, before we get to that position of a possible strike or lockout,” he said. “Those fears . . . are there, and they’re still there, except now we know that people are still going to be at the table for sure for a little while longer.”
The UNB Student Union is not choosing a side as it does not want to interfere with deliberations. “We don’t want to use students as emotional pawns,” said O’Kane.
AUNBT represents 600 academic staff. Approximately 12,000 students would be affected by a strike.