Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Concordia University of Edmonton strike triggers hard-line response

A meme from the 2022 CUE strike.
Strikes and lockouts can have profound effects on workers, managers, organizations, and their relationships. The research suggests a strike or lockout can result in:
  • decreased worker job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and psychological well-being,
  • strained relations with other organizational members (e.g., students),
  • increased class awareness and solidarity among workers, and
  • deteriorating relationships between workers and managers as well as between managers and owners
An interesting Canadian analysis can be found this 2008 article by Chaulk and Brown.

Concordia Faculty Strike

The fallout from Alberta’s first post-secondary strike at Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) in January of 2022 appears to offer an example of a strike resulting in a heightened level of organizational conflict. The CUE strike centered on wage and workload demands, with the small faculty association (about 80 members) being among the worst paid (68th out of 70) in Canada.

In the year prior to the strike, CUE recorded an operating surplus of 33% and had significant savings. Instead of offering faculty a reasonable wage increase or addressing workload issues, the Board decided to off a 3% increase over five years and buy the nearby century-old Magrath Mansion. The mansion was putatively intended to serve as a campus but was neither zoned nor architecturally suitable for instructional space, so draw your own conclusions there.

CUE also pushed new disciplinary language that would allow it to fire faculty without just cause. CUE then offered to withdraw its disciplinary proposals if faculty handed over their intellectual property rights to the employer. This led to an 11-day strike in January of 2022 that, apparently, was some kind of surprise to CUE’s Board.

In the end, the employer dropped its discipline demands. The faculty association’s wage demands (which amounted to $350,000 or, if you prefer, 0.18 mansions) were mostly met and the strike wrapped up. CUE’s reputation in the community and with students took quite a hit. Subsequently, CUE’s sessional instructors filed to unionize with CUPE, in part because the employer refused to pay them during the strike, even though there were not in the faculty association and were not on strike (they were eventually paid).

Concordia Strike Fall Out

In the 14 months since the strike settled, the CUE faculty association has documented a number of concerning trends, including:
  • Enrollment is down (I’m hearing 10%) and there are "budget shortfalls". Past accrued surpluses have apparently been transferred to a capital fund to build more buildings and buy more land. CUE is providing no real information about its finances to the community.
  • Twelve staff were laid off this year.
  • Four programs do not meet quality council faculty complement criteria and five more were identified by external reviewers as being understaffed but there is no indication of any institutional response. This is very bad news for a university.
  • Approximately 10% of the CUE membership has been subjected to disciplinary investigations since the strike (the provincial average is about 2% per year) by expensive external investigators using inconsistent processes. Almost all of the discipline is being grieved, but CUE has not really engaged in resolution efforts, so off the grievances go to arbitration.
  • Elected faculty representatives have resigned from the Board after being disciplined for raising concerns about deteriorating staff relations and faculty representatives are now to be chosen by the Board.
  • General Faculties Council meetings have become hollow exercises in rubber stamping. Some faculty councils have also become inactive and/or are routinely end-run by deans, and other administrators are acting outside of policy.
The result is an organizational climate characterized, according to faculty, by fear and uncertainty. The Board of Governors has refused to meet with faculty to discussion these issues.

This outcome is not particularly surprising. Sometimes, the experience of weathering a strike can cause an employer to seek to improve its relationship with staff. Other times, the employer can double down on the behaviours that triggered the strike and even engage in retaliation (which is what faculty are saying is going on).

Doubling down can sometimes reflect a desire to punish workers and break their will to resist. Employers, especially those with religious origins, often resist any challenge to the organization's authority. This approach may also reflect a cost-benefit analysis by the employer (i.e., treating workers poorly is worthwhile in some way). Or it may just reflect the absence of any idea by administrators about how to move forward productively.

Maybe CUE will decide to change course. More likely, though, the conflict will continue until there is a change in the institution’s leadership.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How sad. The faculty there have been reasonable in seeking improvements in working conditions, and the board is responding in a reactionary, punitive way.