University of Regina and URFA reach tentative agreement
author: john loeppky, marty grande-sherbert, kristian ferguson, sara birrell | editors and contributor
so much union talk / Jeremy davis
A week’s worth of updates
This article is an amalgamation of the Carillon’s coverage over the paper’s week off. For the full articles, please view our website at carillonregina.com
For nearly two years – since June 2017 – the faculty at the University of Regina have been performing their duties without a contract. And for nearly one year – since last April – they have been attempting, through negotiations between the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) and the university itself, to remedy that situation.
On Friday Mar. 15, despite the assistance of a mediator, it was announced that the two parties had failed to come to an agreement, leaving open the possibility of a job action at a time when students are heading into the most stressful part of their academic term.
Dr. Tom McIntosh – who made it clear that he speaks only for himself as a professor and URFA member, and not as an URFA official or spokesperson – sees the challenges the bargaining committee has faced in attempting to get a fair contract as indicative of a wider problem with the way universities in general are run, not just the U of R. There’s a “kind of managerial culture taking hold in universities,” McIntosh said.
“I think that’s problematic,” said student Tanisha Khan. “If you actually start out somewhere in research or teaching, you’d have a healthy respect regarding how to run a university and how to treat your essential employees.”
Provost Thomas Chase, who represents the administration’s side of the bargaining, agreed that the number of out-of-scope administrative employees at the university has burgeoned at more than three times the rate of faculty since 2009, but said that it’s incorrect to assume that all of those employees are senior executives.
The University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) has confirmed their job action headquarters, should they be needed, as the Gay and Lesbian Community of Regina, the site of the Q Nightclub and Lounge on Broad Street.
URFA President Sylvain Rheault said in an interview that the offer came unsolicited via email and spoke about the terms of the agreement.
“They are offering a very good rental tenancy for us if we want to [use it] during a strike. “
Rheault characterized the agreement as “pretty good” given that it allows the union flexibility by making it week to week, given the possible length of job action.
Many students attended an event hosted by RPIRG (Regina Public Research Interest Group), which answered questions about situation for students.
Dr. Jason Childs, of URFA’s negotiating team, stressed that the union was “uncomfortable” with the University of Regina’s communication strategy and that it was “mindful of the legal line” when it came to talking about the status of negotiations in public.
He said that, ultimately the union “needs a dance partner” in order for negotiations to come to a close. He also said that the goal of the negotiating team was to reduce the harm “practically to 0.”
In a previous interview, Rheault expressed the same message of restraint on behalf of the union.
“A strike is something we consider very seriously and we know that there’s going to be effects and we’re trying as much as possible to mitigate the effects on students, if we go on strike.“
The livestream of the event, as of Mar. 21, had been viewed over 1.2 thousand times. Students were prompted by URFA and RPIRG to contact those in the administration about the negotiations. An email script was provided online.
Recent tweets directed at Vianne Timmons about the possible job action received almost identical replies.
“We believe in the collective bargaining process and have been working hard to achieve the best possible collective agreement for students, academic staff, and the broader campus community.”
Not all faculty members were onside with the union’s position, however.
One URFA member who requested to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals was resistant to URFA’s position in an interview.
“What I want to get across is that my students are what come first in my mind. I support the negotiations, I do, and I support the union’s negotiating tactics, they’re doing a very difficult job.”
“Really all I see is Mommy and Daddy are bickering and the children are who are being harmed here.”
Provost Tom Chase laid out the schedule as it relates to graduation, with graduates being confirmed at monthly meetings at Executive of Council. According to Chase that list is still contingent on final grades, including exams. Chase also stressed that international students were a priority for the administration.
“People who are far, far from their home it’s [(their academic security is)] very important to us, there’s no question about it.”
Both Tom Chase and AVP UR International, Livia Castellanos, pointed toward Canadian government regulations that are in place to protect international students in cases of issues outside of their control, such as a job action. Castellanos also explained the process being undertaken with students on exchange at the University of Regina.
“The Government of Canada protects the student and they continue to hold their legal status until the classes resume.”
“So, the students that are here for one semester, or study abroad, we are going to be communicating with the students and also we are going to be communicating with the institutions where the students are being received from and we are going to try to provide them with the supports and the mechanisms that will allow the students, perhaps, to defer their exams and/or to defer their final grade so that they can obtain those marks and move on into their education in their home institution.”
Castellanos said that those affected count “around 131 students. Castellanos also laid out UR International’s view of international students who are obtaining a degree from the University of Regina.
“The students that are seeking a degree here, or they are seeking a certificate or a graduate degree will not be affected because we are assuming that those students are continuing their studies here with us. So, they will remain with their visa[s].”
The University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) served the University of Regina with an official strike notice on Mar. 22 with the document dated for Mar. 28 at 10 a.m. If an agreement is not reached during the Mar. 25 and 26 bargaining days strike action could commence having cleared the 48 hours required in Saskatchewan labour law for a cooling off period.
In a Mar. 22 release, URFA spoke about the service of the notice.
“Today, URFA served strike notice to the University of Regina, with strike action commencing on March 28, 2019 at 10:00 am.”
“This means that, unless the bargaining team reaches a tentative agreement before that time, members of the URFA University of Regina Academic Bargaining Unit will engage in job action.”
In a letter by President Vianne Timmons sent to the union and posted to the University of Regina’s bargaining-specific website, the University of Regina indicated that they oppose the serving of the notice on the grounds that the two-week cooling off period will not have expired.
“The University takes the position that the strike notice contemplated in s. 6-34 of the Act is not valid and cannot be served until after the cooling off period contemplated by s. 6-33(1 )(d) of the Act has expired.”
“If URFA or the University of Regina Academic Staff Members take any strike action before strike notice is properly served, the University will make application to the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board to enjoin such activity.”
A source close to the URFA negotiations has confirmed that the union has been told by the government conciliator involved in the negotiations, as well as with their own legal counsel, that the move is legal. Our source has said the union are to “triple check” on Monday, Mar. 25. Kent Peterson and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) also confirmed, via email, the same position.
“Yes my understanding is strike/lockout notice can be served during the 14 day cooling off period, but a strike/lockout cannot occur during the 14 day cooling off period and not until 48 hours after the servings of notice.”
With the rhetoric around possible job action intensifying, the Carillon has confirmed, as first noted by Dr. Alec Couros after a domain search of a university website, that the University of Regina has hired a large public relations firm, NATIONAL Public Relations, to handle the communications sent during the strike, including the aforementioned website.
In an email that confirmed the news, Provost Tom Chase gave the reasoning the U of R has for obtaining the Montreal-based company’s services.
“As we have been working hard at the collective bargaining table for an agreement with URFA, a top priority for the University is to ensure that all members of the campus community and the wider community are receiving important updates and information in a timely way.”
Chase wrote that the bargaining related website, ureginacollectivebargaining.ca, is part of this effort.
Reactions from union members have been negative. Dr. Tom McIntosh voiced his displeasure on twitter, as did many of his colleagues.
“I’m just so disgusted w[ith] my university. After years of trying to rebuild the relationship between the admin and the faculty, they’re now willing to throw it all away.’
NATIONAL’s website highlights the services they provide to institutions such as the University of Regina during labour negotiations.
“Negotiations are underway. Your people depend on a set outcome. By relying on opportune communications, we can influence the outcome in your favour.”
Meanwhile, the University of Regina Faculty Association has released frequently asked questions documents related to students and members in URFA’s various bargaining units, including highlighting how important cohesiveness is to them during the negotiation process.
“URFA solidarity is dependent upon all members participating in strike action. If some members choose not to participate then, bargaining leverage is weakened.”
The release also includes general guidelines for academic staff and how they are meant to act during a strike in accordance with union principles, as well as steps being taken to help education about the possible action.
URFA has established its strike headquarters and arranged strike workshops (Monday March 25 at 10:00 a.m. in ED 230, and Tuesday March 26 at 1:15 p.m. in Ed. Auditorium 106.1). Pickets, finances and all other aspects of strike preparation have also been arranged”
The document provides clarity in relation to the position of those on leave.
“It is URFA’s position that the Collective Agreement remains in force until the negotiation of a new agreement. In the event that a strike is necessary, the URFA executive will argue that sabbaticants and those on approved leaves should not be considered on strike because they were not engaged in teaching, or involved in supervisory or administrative duties. This is conditional, of course, on our Employer’s position.”
URFA also confirmed that it is their position that research funds still be dispersed and acted upon.
“Unless suspended by the University, all research funds from university, federal, provincial and any other external granting agency will continue to be available to researchers, and can be used for pre-approved research, travel and other approved research expenditures.”
The section relating to support provided by academics such as support letters and academic reviewing, urges quick action.
“Do what you can before the strike starts to minimize any lasting consequence of a strike action on others: write those letters of recommendation now; finish reviewing that MS; contact editors/grant administrators and explain what could be going on in the event of a strike. What you choose to do once a strike begins, however, is between you and your conscience.”
The student FAQ provides URFA’s reasoning for strike action, along with how convocation, Saskatchewan Polytechnic classes, and students facing unique circumstances may be affected.
“Classes will almost certainly be cancelled in the event of a strike, and your instructors will likely be prevented from accessing UR Courses and email. Your instructors will not be coming on to campus for office hours. Although URFA regrets this very real disruption in your academic year that a strike may entail, all of this is done in the long-term interests of improving the quality of your education at the University of Regina.”
“You will see picket lines at university main entrances. These picket lines will not prevent access to the university grounds. Please feel free to stop and chat with instructors and librarians on the picket lines. If you want, you can even join us! We appreciate your support.”
“Faculty from Saskatchewan Polytechnic have expressed their support of our strike action. They will not co-teach any joint course offerings with our Employer.”
With possible strike action to occur on Mar. 28 from the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA), the University of Regina Students’ Union has released a statement.
The Mar. 23 document, signed by president Shawn Wiskar and vice president student affairs Jermain McKenzie, centers on the union’s view of how students will be affected in any form of job action.
“This week, both bargaining units took time to meet and discuss their perspectives with students. We thank Dr. Jason Childs and Dr. Marc Spooner from URFA and Dr. Vianne Timmons and Dr. Tom Chase from the University administration for taking the time to talk with concerned students. This is a great first step, but there is still much more work to do when it comes to dialoguing with the students of the University of Regina.”
“URFA has served strike notice to the university contingent on the failure of the bargaining sessions of March 25 & 26. Regardless of whether it is valid or not, this has signified to students that job action is likely imminent. Both sides must be honest with themselves and come to the table with the realization that [bolded words] students will lose the most in any form of job action [end bolded words].”
“It is time to live up to the promises made this week by bargaining in good faith towards an agreement that is in the best interests of not only the parties in dispute but more importantly in the best interests of students.”
The document specifically references flights for international students, student loan issues that could arise with a longer semester, and disruptions to summer job terms.
The Regina Public Interest Research Group (RPIRG) was vocal in a Facebook post of their own about their resistance to URSU’s rhetoric.
“Students will experience an immediate impact, yes. But so will academic staff who will be not working and on the picket line – they receive a fraction of their wage while on the line and they and the lives of their families will also be disrupted. To ignore this is to conveniently erase the realities of job action for workers.
RPIRG’s reply spoke to the efforts of past workers and their effort as well URFA’s support of the “freeze tuition” campaign championed by URSU, saying, “We now have an opportunity to show up for URFA and return the favour.”
A town hall was originally pitched to URSU by a representative of URFA on Feb. 15, but was declined, with URSU President Shawn Wiskar referenced a want to stay away from taking sides in a reply email.
“URSU is all for the idea of giving students information on the CBA negotiations. We would be willing to promote the event through all forms of media and help you tell your side of the story. URSU, however, has decided to remain neutral in this matter now that it has reached an impasse.”
This came in stark contrast to URSU’s show of solidarity previous to Wiskar’s appointment, in a release dated Nov. 9 written by McKenzie.
“We are encouraged to see the faculty members standing together on the issues facing them, and we hope they will stand with us as students when we vehemently oppose any future attempts at a tuition increase. We are all in this together and it is our unity that will change the status quo and deliver for us the educational environment where we can all reach our full potential as teachers and students.”
Since then, two town halls have been hosted, one by URFA and the other by the administration. A source close to URFA has noted that administration backed away from the two town hall solution proposed by URSU where they would host two separate events.
URSU also released a second statement on Mar. 23 with the details of how the union would be supporting students during any possible job action. Their release has been edited in format only.
“…URSU is doing everything it can to prevent a strike from occurring, however it appears that some sort of job action by URFA members is likely. In the event of a strike, URSU makes the following pledges to all students on campus:”
“All URSU services will be available during regular business hours to the students.”
“The Owl will be open 11:00 am -11:00 pm Monday-Friday. URSU Member Services will be open 8:30am – 4:30pm Monday-Friday (8:30am- 7:00pm on Wednesday). All student funding (club funding, PEC funding, emergency bursary funding) will still be available to students. The student advocate will be available daily for appointments. Please email ahead of time due to a high volume of requests (firstname.lastname@example.org). Executives and URSU staff will post regular updates on both the URSU social media platforms and website for student reference. Executives will be available daily to meet with students and discuss their individual situations on a drop-in or appointment basis.”
“… If the semester is extended and students run into issues regarding a lease that will be expiring, URSU has spoken to Residence Services and received a guarantee that they will accommodate students on a short–term basis. If the strike is long term and students need to return at a later date to complete finals, there will also be spots available. Students in need of additional assistance affording an extended stay should book an appointment with the student advocate (email@example.com).
URFA received a letter from the President’s office on Mar. 23 challenging the legality of the strike notice provided last week. On Mar. 25, URFA sent a reply confirming what the Carillon had already found, that the strike notice was in good legal standing. Below is the body text of the letter from URFA President Sylvain Rheault to President Vianne Timmons.
“I want to thank you for sharing with me your concerns about the legality of our strike notice. I can assure you that before sending to the administration such a serious notice, URFA carefully thought of ways to minimize the potential impact on our students (please, see our FAQs on our website).”
“We also consulted with our legal counsel to make sure that the timing of our notice was perfectly legal, as the Saskatchewan Employment Act does not state or imply that a strike notice must be delayed until the end of any cooling-off period. On the contrary, the time requirements in section 6-33(7) of the Saskatchewan Employment Act apply to the commencement of a strike, not the giving of notice.”
“By making a baseless challenge to our notice, the administration creates confusion and might even push potential job action right into the beginning of the final exam period, something URFA was trying to avoid.”
“I respectfully recommend that the administration acknowledge the validity of URFA’s strike notice and return to bargaining. All the students and the university staff, as well as the general public, are counting on us lo reach a fair agreement on March 25 and 26.“
In response to queries surrounding the hiring of Public relations firm NATIONAL, Provost Tom Chase replied via email explaining, from the administration’s point of view, why the firm was hired.
“The University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) is the certified bargaining agent for the University of Regina’s Administrative, Professional, and Technical (APT) employees. Given that the University’s External Relations communications team is comprised almost entirely of APT employees, the University did not feel it was appropriate for APT employees to be involved in communications surrounding the collective bargaining process.”
“As I’m sure you can appreciate, the volume of work required to ensure thousands of students, their families, the campus community, partner institutions, and the wider community, are receiving timely updates is high. The University sought support from NATIONAL Public Relations to assist with this work; NATIONAL’s work is ongoing so it’s too early to determine final costs associated with the contract.”
Chase did not immediately answer questions related to where the funds would be coming from, nor how long the contract has run and will continue for. The Carillon will follow up.
At 6:15 P.M an announcement was made that a tentative agreement had been reached, with URFA to recommend that the membership vote for the deal. It still needs to be ratified.