Wave of con­cern

Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land hires Hal­i­fax lawyer to lead con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with fac­ulty

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERESA WRIGHT

The Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land has hired a lawyer from Hal­i­fax as its chief ne­go­tia­tor in ad­vance of con­tract talks with the univer­sity’s fac­ulty.

Brian John­ston, a part­ner with Ste­wart McKelvey, has been re­tained to lead the ne­go­ti­at­ing team for UPEI.

A spokesper­son for the univer­sity said hir­ing an ex­pert from out­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not un­com­mon, not­ing John­ston’s ex­pe­ri­ence in labour ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“It is com­mon to have an ex­pert well versed in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing to lead each team,” said Ni­cole Phillips, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the univer­sity.

“UPEI is pleased to have some­one with Mr. John­ston’s ex­pe­ri­ence for find­ing cre­ative so­lu­tions lead us as we work to­gether with the fac­ulty as­so­ci­a­tion to achieve a new col­lec­tive agree­ment.”

But the univer­sity’s move to hire John­ston this early in the process has cre­ated a wave of con­cern among many fac­ulty mem­bers on cam­pus.

John­ston’s work as chief ne­go­tia­tor for Mount Al­li­son Univer­sity in 2014 has height­ened th­ese con­cerns. Mount Al­li­son fac­ulty went on strike for three weeks in the midst of its con­tract talks be­fore a me­di­a­tor was called in.

Fac­ulty mem­bers who spoke to The Guardian this week said they are con­cerned the fac­ulty’s pen­sion plan may be­come an is­sue of con­tention at the bar­gain­ing ta­ble. The univer­sity has a de­fined ben­e­fit pen­sion plan, which has seen the num­ber of ac­tively con­tribut­ing mem­bers de­crease while the num­ber of pen­sion­ers has in­creased over the last three years.

In ad­di­tion, the univer­sity has had to pay mil­lions in ad­di­tional pay­ments into the pen­sion plan due to short­falls in re­cent years. The most re­cent ac­tu­ar­ial re­port in 2014 found a sig­nif­i­cant gap be­tween as­sets in the pen­sion fund and the cost of pro­vid­ing the pen­sions. This meant the univer­sity had to com­mit to a fur­ther $1 mil­lion in an­nual spe­cial pay­ments into its pen­sion fund.

Th­ese fi­nan­cial pres­sures are now cou­pled with con­cerns over a freeze or cut in fund­ing from the prov­ince this year as the MacLauch­lan govern­ment tries to present a bal­anced bud­get this spring. Some fac­ulty mem­bers have ex­pressed con­cern the univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion may look for more shared risk within the pen­sion plan to al­le­vi­ate costs for the univer­sity. Oth­ers worry the ad­min­is­tra­tion might push for a com­plete move away from a de­fined ben­e­fit plan to a de­fined con­tri­bu­tion plan.

Fac­ulty mem­bers who spoke to The Guardian said they are not ex­pect­ing big salary in­creases, but many be­lieve ne­go­ti­a­tions could be tense.

The pos­si­bil­ity of a strike has been raised among some fac­ulty mem­bers and even among some high-rank­ing govern­ment of­fi­cials.

UPEI Fac­ulty As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Nola Etkin re­mained tightlipped about her ex­pec­ta­tions for the con­tract talks. She would only say the union is in the midst of pre­par­ing its ne­go­ti­at­ing team.

“Ne­go­ti­a­tions have not yet be­gun, the teams have been named but they’ve not yet met,” Etkin said.

“All I can re­ally say at this point is that we’re com­mit­ted to ne­go­ti­at­ing a fair agree­ment at the ta­ble with the em­ployer.”

The col­lec­tive agree­ment be­tween the UPEI board of gov­er­nors and the fac­ulty as­so­ci­a­tion ex­pires April 30.

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