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University and professors’ union draw close to pivotal moment in negotiations

THE UNIVERSITY OF Ottawa and its professors will attempt to reach a collective bargaining agreement before Aug. 8 to avoid the possibility of a strike or lockout following months of negotiations.

On July 31, members of the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO)—which include more than 1,200 professors and academic librarians—voted 82 per cent in favour of a strike mandate out of nearly 700 ballots cast. The votemarked the first-ever strike mandate in the APUO’s history.

The result means the APUO executive committee has the support of its membership to call a strike as early as Aug. 8 if negotiations with the university don’t improve.

The collective bargaining process began in February and the two institutions met for the first time in March to begin the negotiation process for a number of concerns brought forth by the APUO.

The main focus of the collective agreement is the staff-to-student ratio at the university. The U of O currently employs 400 fewer professors than it should, according to APUO president Christian Rouillard.

Discussion has also circled around the university’s planned creation of teaching-only positions, which require professors to spend a greater amount of time on teaching rather than on research. Rouillard said this would limit professors’ ability to progress in their field, both for the sake of their students and the professors themselves.

“We don’t support such positions,” Rouillard said in an interview with the Fulcrum. “We believe that if academia is to remain a distinct institution, then students need to be involved with people who spend a significant amount of time in both teaching and research.”

Additionally, the APUO has asked the university to raise professors’ salaries to meet the average in Ontario and takes issue with the university’s plan for pension reform. According to Rouillard, the U of O plans to increase pension contributions of professors and librarians but decrease benefits upon retirement.

“There is no real financial issue with our pension plan as it is,” he said. “We certainly don’t support the idea to have a permanent reform that would negatively impact our members.”

Rouillard said the APUO is “very, very far” from an agreement with the university on pension reform.

In a letter to students, the APUO explained that the ability to call a strike is the only way the union will be able to stop the university from locking out its professors or unilaterally imposing new working conditions. The successful strike mandate also means the university would have to offer a better deal than what it has tabled so far.

“Let us be very clear. We did not create, nor did we ask for, these negotiations to reach this stage,” the statement read. “At every point, we requested that the employer allow normal bargaining to continue and they refused. We are in this position because the employer unilaterally used legal means to force an end to negotiations.”

In its letter, the APUO called the potential strike “a very last resort” and said it would do everything in its power to minimize the impact of the negotiations on students.

Tension began in June when the university called for conciliation after just two months of negotiation. The university also took the APUO by surprise when it filed a no-board report only two days after conciliation began, which launched a 17-day deadline for the parties to reach an agreement.

Aug. 8 is the first day it becomes legally possible for the APUO to strike or for the university to force a lockout if an agreement hasn’t been reached; the university may also unilaterally rewrite the collective agreement without the union’s input.

The two parties will meet Aug. 3­–4 for mediation and again in the days following, if necessary.

The Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) has voiced its support for the APUO and has committed to help students stay informed throughout the negotiations, which could result in a delayed beginning of term.

“We are thinking of students right now and that is who we’re representing first and foremost,” SFUO president Anne-Marie Roy said in an interview. “However, we do have some concerns with how the university is negotiating and so we’re asking them to negotiate in good faith, but also to revisit the proposal because we have some concerns with how that might affect the quality of the education that we’re receiving.”

In an open letter to U of O president Allan Rock, the student federation expressed its “deep concern” with the state of negotiations between the university and its professors.

“The fact that the University of Ottawa administration has forced the APUO’s hand through such aggressive tactics ignores the harm that would be caused to students by either a lockout or strike,” Roy wrote in the letter.

Roy also said the U of O is currently in great financial standing and has generated $500 million in surpluses over the last 12 years.

The Graduate Students’ Association (GSAÉD) issued a special bulletin Aug. 1 to address the situation.

“GSAÉD firmly believes that our learning conditions are our teacher’s working conditions,” the statement read. “We are 100 per cent united behind our full-time professors and will labour alongside them for a fair and equitable contract.”

Rock declined to comment on the issue and the university’s communications director has yet to issue an official statement.