The Mount Allison University administration’s decision to use a lawyer as the chief negotiator in the ongoing contract negotiations marks the first time Mt. A has seen a legal professional take the helm during collective bargaining.
Mt. A alumnus Brian Johnston works for Halifax-based law firm Stewart McKelvey. Johnston specializes in labour relations, and has previously worked for the NSCAD administration during two collective bargaining negotiations. According to the firm’s website, Johnston “works with virtually every type of employer” in Canada and works “[d]eveloping union avoidance plans for national employers,” as well as “[s]uccessfully concluding collective agreement settlements at less than mandate.” Johnston was also a past chair of the Board of Regents at Mt. A.
Mt. A’s vice-president academic Karen Grant said the hiring of a professional was necessary to ensure the continued regular functioning of the administration.
“If we had not done this, one of the deans or the director of HR, or the Provost would have had to take on these responsibilities, and this would have prevented them from carrying out their normal responsibilities.”
Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers James Turk said there is precedent for lawyers to be involved in academic contract negotiation.
“In the past universities have frequently used lawyers, but I wouldn’t say there is a trend,” he said.
The Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA) is not using a lawyer in negotiations. MAFA President Loralea Michaelis cited a number of reasons why the union has not contracted a lawyer.
“It’s very expensive. And also I think that there is a strong tradition in the labour movement of having the employees and members themselves hold the positions of responsibility […] they’re more familiar with the nature of the work and they live the consequences they are negotiating,” Michaelis said.
The chief negotiator for MAFA is Helen Pridmore, a music professor. The other negotiators are also faculty.
Turk said there was nothing a lawyer could do that a member of the administration could not.
“Why they bring in lawyers, I frankly don’t know. They may wish to bring in outside expertise, although most universities have HR departments where there would presumably be that expertise.”
Turk said that the use of lawyers in the collective bargaining process at universities does not present a problem:.
“I don’t think it is an issue: lawyers are hired guns; they do what they’re told.” Turk instead pointed instead to other perceived problems in university governance. “If there’s bad things happening at the bargaining table and the lawyer is taking an aggressive position it’s because that’s what his client is telling them to do.”
The university refused The Argosy’s requests to share details of Johnston’s compensation, citing lawyer-client privilege. The Argosy has filed a Right to Information request seeking details of payment.
Johnston was unavailable for comment at press time.