Faculty on strike against high-tuition University

Classrooms at Acadia University will be empty today as the university wades into its second faculty strike in four years. "We’ll be out on the picket line in the morning," Andrew Biro, spokesman for the Acadia Faculty Association that represents 300 professors, instructors and librarians, said after last-ditch negotiations between the association and the university broke down at about 9 p.m. Sunday night.

Students had hoped for the best but were braced for the worst as the midnight deadline approached. "Students are angry and concerned," Kyle Steele, president of the Acadia Students’ Union, said in an interview on campus Sunday. "Students don’t want to lose out on their education," said the fourth-year French major from Sydney. "Nobody wants to lose a term, or any time in class."

He said students are telling him if they’d known there might be a strike, they wouldn’t have bothered paying their tuition or their fees until the labour dispute was resolved. Acadia tuition, at $7,562 a year, is the highest of any undergraduate university in Canada.

Although official enrolment figures won’t be available until later today, there are roughly 3,000 full-time students at Acadia.

"I’m very concerned," said Mr. Steele. "We haven’t seen any progress from both sides, even with a provincial conciliator coming in."

Talks with the conciliator broke off Friday night, setting up a showdown between the faculty and the administration.

But the two sides went into meetings again Sunday morning and talked until 9 p.m.

"Our team is committed to reaching a negotiated agreement," Mr. Biro said earlier Sunday.

Acadia spokesman Scott Roberts had expressed the same sentiments in an interview Friday.

"From the administration side, it’s been pretty clear that we would like to negotiate a settlement as well."

But Mr. Steele said both sides were still far apart on a lot of the issues going into Sunday’s meetings.

He feared that if a strike began and both sides dig in their heels, it may be difficult to settle.

A faculty strike four years ago lasted just over two weeks before an agreement was reached and students were able to make up the time.

The students union has arranged to have more than 60 graduate students help out with tutoring in the event of a strike.

"If students have questions or problems, they can come to our tutors," Mr. Steele said. There will also be programming available, including bus trips to Halifax, shopping, movie nights and other things.

"We plan to step up and provide some value for students while they’re here."

But some are already talking about returning home in the event of a strike.

"I would probably go home," Abby Thibodeau, a first-year kinesiology student from Maine, said Sunday on her way into the student centre.

"My friends are all saying they’ll go home if there’s a strike. So I’m a little worried," she added. "It’s really frustrating not knowing what’s going to happen and how this will affect mid-terms and the finals."

The signs of a possible strike were obvious in town Sunday. The faculty association has set up a highly visible strike headquarters on Elm Avenue. Members were preparing placards there on the weekend.

Negotiations between the union and university administration have been off and on since last spring. In September, a provincially appointed conciliator determined that there was no basis for further negotiations.

But the two sides met with a conciliator for three days last week, until talks broke down Friday night.

Staff complement appears to be the main issue. The union believes the university’s offer could reduce faculty members — professors, instructors and librarians — by nine to 17 per cent over time.

Less faculty would mean larger class sizes and fewer course offerings and make the university less attractive to potential students, the union says.

Wages are also an issue, with the union saying the administration’s recent wage proposal is significantly below regional and national averages, by as much as 20 per cent. That could hurt Acadia’s ability to recruit and retain faculty.

In the last year of the contract, full-time salaries ranged from $41,433 to $119,295. But union spokesmen say that only a handful of its members are at or near the top of that salary range.

Dental benefits, day care, employment equity and fair compensation for part-time faculty are also contentious points.


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