Pickets launched as talks between UNBC professors and employer fail

Terrace, B.C. protest is one of several across the northwest region intending to put pressure on administration to up professor wages

Faculty of the UNBC Terrace campus

UNBC faculty members at the Terrace campus are walking the picket line today, just one of several protests across northwest B.C. intending to put pressure on administrators after the two sides failed to reach an agreement.

“We’re out here doing this because we think it’s the right thing to do for post secondary education, the right thing to do for students, and the right thing to do for the people of Prince George who collectively helped established this particular university,” said UNBC Faculty Association Terrace picket captain Bruce Bidgood, a professor at UNBC.

The recently established faculty association union, which represents 360 instructors and others, has been in negotiations and then mediation with veteran mediator Vince Ready with the university since last May in an attempt to reach a first agreement.

The union issued 72-hour strike notice on Monday, and last night announced it would erect picket lines today.

“Salaries for professors at UNBC have become uncompetitive compared to not only the province of British Columbia but across the country as well,” said Bidgood, noting that it is difficult to attract and retain professors.

A graph produced by the strikers indicates an instructor who has been at the university for most of its 25 years of existence makes approximately $110,000 a year, with starting salary hovering just about $60,000 a year.

“It’s hard for us to attract faculty members from other locations such as the Lower Mainland and from the United States and Ontario when we are being paid on average 20 some odd per cent less than a comparable university at any other location,” Bidgood said, noting he has also noticed an “exodus” of senior staff moving on to positions at other universities. “In addition, it affects people’s productivity, it affects our ability to attract good students, good graduate students, things of that nature.”

But the union isn’t just bargaining on salary, he said. “Some of the sections that we’re negotiating have to do with academic input or faculty input into whether programs get cancelled or not.”

The university issued a statement last night that noted the university “has acknowledged that compensation is a critical issue for faculty association members and has sought to address salary compression.”

It points to 54 contract articles agreed to over the last 10 months, and notes that eight of the remaining 13 articles are related to compensation. “The university has proposed a compensation package which includes a minimum General Wage Increase of 0, 1, 1.5, 1.5, and 1.5 per cent over the five-year agreement, consistent with the provincial government’s Economic Stability Mandate.”

University spokesperson Rob Vanadrichem added that aside from the five-and-a-half per cent over five years offer that is on the table, the university has increased wages five per cent over the last two years. He pointed to stalled enrolment and the fact that government funding has not increased in several years.

“If government grants aren’t growing and enrolment isn’t growing, then we have a fairly static revenue,” he said. “So it’s difficult to be able to just increase expenses to a level that some people may like but at the end of the day we have to do the right thing and operate the university in a sustainable way.”

Bidgood pointed to a study done by Ready, saying it noted it is “within the purview of the university to address the salary inequity.”

“They have the resources currently,” he said. “Yes it would be nice if the province provided additional revenues as well, but it’s just not a matter of finding additional revenues its how do we use the revenues we have now.”

Responding to the faculty association’s claims about Ready’s report, Vanadrichem said that the university has been addressing faculty wages.

“When Vince Ready says you can allocate some of those funds any way that you choose, that’s true to a degree,” he said. “And that’s what budget planning is and budgeting is, but at the same time to think that that’s not being allocated to the faculty is not true based on what our proposal is and what we’ve done over the past couple of years.

“We’re doing the best we can in a balanced way, again for the sustainability of UNBC and all of the things we have to do to maintain a university – that includes maintaining a campus and funding regional campuses, and doing advertising, all of those other things that go with operating a university over and above the faculty salaries.”

Bidgood said he isn’t surprised negotiations have ended up with picket lines.

“The administration has never had to deal with a union before – we have tried as a faculty association since well before May, since about a year and a half I think, to negotiate an agreement that would be acceptable to both parties without success,” he said. “So we haven’t seen that this could be done in any other fashion other than first of all, certifying as a union and second of all … negotiating since May as a union with the administration.

“The line from the administration is we’re making great progress, but we signed off on a series of clauses which are not central to the issue,” he said. “We haven’t been able to address pay, we haven’t been able to address promotion and tenure, which are central to this whole job action.”

Talks continue today and the picket is expected to continue.

Update: As of Friday evening, no agreement had been reached between the two parties.