After the publication of this article, members of CUEFA informed us that increases to salary were in fact won in negotiations at the 11th hour, and were included in the tentative agreement. Therefore, no bargaining issues will go to binding arbitration. This is welcome news, for reasons highlighted below. Given the prevalence of methods like binding arbitration within the labor movement, as is shown by the town hall plan itself, the arguments in this article are still important to the struggle and worth reading in full. Congratulations to CUEFA, and apologies for any confusion we may have contributed to. 

-Fightback editors

On Jan. 15, after 11 days on the picket line, the Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA) announced that they ratified a tentative agreement it reached with university administration. The deal passed with 89 per cent of the membership (73 of 82 members) voting in favor. This marks the end of the first faculty strike in Alberta’s labour history. Although details of the agreement are scarce, according to the CUEFA, the agreement gains ground in two of their main demands: a manageable workload and job security. However the question of salary is still up in the air.

The faculty at Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) were expected to teach up to eight courses per term, twice as much as the standard workload for professors. The fact that Concordia’s faculty are among the lowest paid in the entire country meant they were paid less for twice as much work. These poor working conditions also affect the students’ quality of education. With the exhausting amount of work the faculty have had on their hands, they were hardly able to devote enough time and resources to help their students. A reduced workload will alleviate pressure on staff and increase the quality of education overall. 

Another victory for the workers lies in increased job security. Previously, faculty could be dismissed without just cause. According to the CUEFA, the new deal “restores job security to members.” After years of casualization of university staff, including short contracts, no benefits, and no tenured positions, this is a positive development. 

Another prominent demand of the strike was an increase in pay and two per cent cost of living increases each year. Overall, this would only add $350,000 to Concordia’s expenses. Given that inflation in Canada has risen sharply, this is modest to say the least. Despite the CUE administration’s claims that they can’t honor the union’s demands due to “fiscal constraints”, Concordia University recorded a surplus of $11.5 million in the 2020-21 school year! The CUEFA’s demands to increase their salary are only three per cent of last year’s surplus or 18 per cent of the cost of the Magrath Mansion which the university purchased last year for $1.75 million. 

At an online town hall on Jan. 12, CUEFA representatives revealed their plan to reach an agreement on all bargaining issues other than salary, ratify that deal with the membership, return to work, and enter into binding arbitration with the university to determine faculty salary. 

There are no public details about the agreement. The CUEFA’s news release states: “Salary gains will begin the process of bringing the CUE faculty and academic service officers into line with other institutions; the CUE faculty salaries rank 68th of 70 Canadian universities’. This indicates that the town hall plan to determine salary through binding arbitration is going forward.

Binding arbitration means that the dispute will be submitted to a “neutral” party, which will hear the case of both sides, and make a decision on what will happen to the salary of the faculty members. Arbitration is not neutral at all and is based on the labour laws and standards of the capitalist system. In the majority of cases arbitrators side with the bosses, rather than those of the workers. Given how low CUE salaries are, arbitrators may feel compelled to give a percent here or there, but at the end of the day, arbitration is a way for bosses to get their employees off the picket lines and back to work, while their lives are determined by faceless lawyers and bureaucrats. 

Moving towards binding arbitration on salary was a mistake on the part of the union leadership. This is the exact policy that the university administration had been pushing for in the first place. The CUEFA’s demands for a salary increase, which were probably too modest in the first place, are just and achievable with sustained pressure and solidarity from the movement, which was building each and every day. Over 1350 individuals and organizations from across Canada sent messages to CUE administration to put “students and staff before profit,” and a student-run petition got over 500 signatures supporting the strike, all while classes were shut down. The CUEFA were in a position of leverage, with solidarity messages pouring on the union, and condemnation and scrutiny raining down on Concordia. There is no doubt that the faculty have won important concessions through collective action, but they deserve, and could have won more.