On 30 September 2015, Minister of Advanced Education Lori Sigurdson wrote to faculty and graduate student associations in the province to invite them to furnish their feedback on prospective changes to the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). The Government’s “Discussion Guide” for the consultation notes that the Government is considering changes to labour relations in Alberta in response to the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada case Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan in which the Supreme Court “found that the right to strike is fundamental to the collective bargaining process and is constitutionally protected under section 2(d) (Freedom of Association) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” The “Discussion Guide” also notes that the current PSLA “requires that binding interest arbitration be used to settle collective bargaining disputes at public post-secondary institutions.” Under this mechanism strikes are forbidden. “[I]nstead, a neutral third party decides the dispute after hearing arguments from both sides.” The Government proposes either that the “binding arbitration provision in the PSLA . . . be repealed” so that “academic staff members and graduate students would have the right to strike” or that academic staff be brought under the Labour Relations Code, where they would “be represented by a certified trade union” with the right to strike. See the Government’s full “Discussion Guide” here.
In relation to these options, the Government’s “Discussion Guide” poses a set of nine questions that it asks faculty and graduate student associations to take up. Question 8, for example, notes that “[a]s a result of the changes being made to the labour relations model, academic staff members and graduate students will have the right to strike and institutions will have the right to lock them out, subject to the terms of their collective agreements,” and asks what the perceived impact of this will be. Question 9 asks “Is there anything else that the Government of Alberta should take into consideration in making changes to the labour relations model for academic staff members and graduate students at Alberta’s public post-secondary institutions?”
When the “Discussion Guide” was first issued, the deadline for written submissions to Bart Muusse, Legislation Manager, Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education, was 31 October 2015. That deadline has now been extended to 13 November 2015. It is not clear at this time whether the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta will be submitting to a letter to the Government on this issue by 13 November 2015. (The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations has submitted a document that has not been and may not be made public.) Whether or not the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta prepares its own submission, faculty members at the University have the freedom to express their views on this matter.
Here are some public notes for an open letter to the Minister on what a few of us think the Government’s rewriting of the PSLA should include. We welcome input on the draft material below. Are you interested in signing on to such a letter, and if so what would you like to see in it? Do our notes leave anything urgent out? We would like to have a final draft of the letter by the end of the day on Monday, November 16th, with the plan of the letter with signatures going to the Minister by Friday, November 20th.
DRAFT CLAUSES FOR LETTER (these will follow a very brief orienting statement to the Minister)
- We assert unambiguously the right of academic staff in the province of Alberta to freedom of association. We regard the right currently bestowed upon Boards under the Post-Secondary Learning Act to designate members to academic staff associations as an infringement of the Charter right to freedom of association.
- We also assert unambiguously the right of academic staff in the province of Alberta under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strike.
- We assert that the right to strike cannot be waived for us by any body that represents us as our bargaining agent with the Board of Governors. As Justice Rosalie Abella noted in her majority opinion in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour vs. Saskatchewan, “a legal system which suppresses [the] freedom to strike puts the workers at the mercy of their employers.” Moreover, “the right to strike is not merely derivative of collective bargaining, it is an indispensable component of that right.” We agree that the right to strike is “indispensable,” and therefore cannot be dispensed with by the turn to any other mechanism. “Without the right to strike,” Justice Abella notes, “a constitutionalized right to bargain collectively is meaningless.”
- We would like to see the Act rewritten to rigorously assert the fundamental principles of academic freedom, academic integrity, and academic independence especially in relation to funds received from private or corporate donors, and especially in relation to any research contracts with industry partners into which any university in the province enters. The Act should specify the need for all donor agreements and industry contracts to be made public so that universities are able to guarantee academic freedom and the integrity of their academic goals, as well as demonstrate their ability to protect such freedom, integrity and independence.
- We also call for the Act to specify additional criteria for the means by which Board members meant to represent “the general public” are selected. The “general public” cannot properly be said to be represented by members who are solely accountants, lawyers, and business managers. The new Act should specify innovative means to ensure that all members of the “general public” may be considered for appointment to university Boards and given all the support necessary to flourish as Governors. It should also specify the need for representation from Alberta’s indigenous communities.
- We also assert that the Act needs to be rewritten to strengthen the provisions for the shared governance of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions. In particular, we would like to see the Act involve a fuller definition of the power given to General Faculties Councils to manage the “academic affairs” of the University to ensure that this power cannot be constrained or circumvented by administrators, not even through mechanisms of delegated authority. Major academic decisions such as the founding of colleges within any of Alberta’s postsecondary institutions must be taken by the principal body, the General Faculties Council.
- The new Act should also require Alberta’s postsecondary education institutions strictly to limit their dependence upon temporary or precarious academic and support staff, as reliance on such staff is socially unjust and undermines the political protection of tenure. To ensure that Alberta’s postsecondary institutions are run according to the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and social justice, the Act should specify a maximum percentage, low, of temporary or precarious academic staff that may be employed as academic staff at any of the province’s postsecondary institutions at any time. We suggest that the Act follow the NAIT rule of allowing no more than 10% of the academic staff at any of Alberta’s post-secondary institutions to be hired on a temporary basis.
- Finally, we call upon the Government of Alberta to rewrite the “whereas” clauses upon which the entire Act depends, to define the province’s postsecondary institutions in the first instance as public goods serving the public interest. It is as public goods serving the public interest that our universities best serve the general well-being of Albertans and the province’s culture and economy.
We look forward to the Government’s further consultation with academic staff and graduate students across the province on these issues, and to seeing the Government’s draft of a new Post-Secondary Learning Act.
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Please use the comment box to indicate whether there is anything you would like to add or change, and whether you would provisionally like to sign the letter. The final letter will go to all provisional signatories for their final “yea” before it is sent to the Minister. We are aiming to have the letter to the Minister by November 18th.
Signatures welcome from members of postsecondary institutions across Alberta.