Seventeen days into the faculty strike at Mount Allison University, the two sides are following government orders and returning to the bargaining table today.
Faculty and administration are resuming negotiations Wednesday, Feb. 12. On Monday, Post-Secondary Education Minister Jody Carr announced that he was ordering MAFA and the administration back to the table, and appointed Larry Steinberg, a special mediator from Ontario, to work with both parties.
“Our preference is that an agreement can be reached by both parties working together at the bargaining table. That’s when all parties are successful and reach the best outcome,” Carr said at a Feb. 10 press conference.
The two sides had previously been meeting with a mediator from the province’s Department of Labour, who will still be present as negotiations resume.
Steinberg will be able to take a more active role in the process. His mandate is to “confer with the parties and endeavour to effect a collective agreement,” according to a Feb. 10 press release from Carr’s office.
Steinberg also has the power to summon witnesses and require them to give evidence under oath. As special mediator he can also enforce attendance of witnesses and compel them to give evidence. No person can refuse to answer or attempt to obstruct the process.
A media blackout has been imposed on the negotiations.
The Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) and the administration met for three days last week, from Feb. 5 to 7, but the negotiations failed to produce an agreement. Negotiations ended with both parties proposing different routes for the process to move forward.
MAFA asked the university to consider voluntary special mediation. The administration refused, saying they would not agree to meet with a special mediator unless the faculty association lifted the strike without a collective agreement.
“There was never any question that we were going to return to classes without a contract,” said MAFA President Loralea Michaelis.
Michaelis said she was pleased with the government’s decision.
“We’re all in very good spirits,” Michaelis said.
Mt. A Vice-President Karen Grant said she was disappointed that students were still out of class.
“It would’ve been great to be pursuing a collective agreement with the assistance of the special mediator, knowing full well our students would be back in class,” Grant said.
“We’re more than willing and able and eager to get this process underway,” she said. “We will of course cooperate fully with the special mediator.”
The administration had asked the faculty association for voluntary binding arbitration last Friday. Binding arbitration would have seen an immediate return to class, but would have involved a high level of risk for both parties, as the final contract would have been decided by a third party—not negotiated.
The administration had previously said they were committed to reaching a negotiated settlement. Grant said the administration was concerned that students are still out of class, and believes strongly in the positions they have advanced at the table.
“Our goal here is not just to get a collective agreement, but to get things on track with our students back in class,” Grant said.
While the university insists binding arbitration was a serious proposal, the faculty association expressed skepticism. MAFA said they would never have agreed to voluntary binding arbitration, as their members would have no opportunity to vote on an agreement. Michaelis suggested the administration proposed it only because they knew MAFA would reject the proposal.
During the press conference, Carr said binding arbitration was high-risk for both sides, and the government would prefer a negotiated settlement. But if negotiations continue to stall despite the assistance of the special mediator, binding arbitration may be an option in future.
Michaelis said working with a special mediator was an “accepted and standard next step when there’s an impasse.”
On Sunday, the Mount Allison Students’ Union (MASU) endorsed a special mediator, on the condition that the strike ends and students return to class.
While disappointed students are not back in class as negotiations resume, MASU President Melissa O’Rourke said she considers the government’s intervention “a positive step forward.”
“[H]opefully it means that we’ll be back in classes as soon as possible,” O’Rourke said.
MASU is holding a demonstration this morning to pressure both sides to reach an agreement and return to class.
MASU will be going ahead with a plan to collect signatures in favour of government intervention, in case the two parties are still unable to reach an agreement.
“We still think it’s important that we’re pressuring government for further intervention in whatever capacity they think is necessary,” O’Rourke said.