ULFA Interview w/ Dan O’Donnell

Posted February 18, 2022 at 10:54am

Interviewees: Dan O’Donnell, ULFA President
Interviewer: Michael Doherty, CKXU Program Director
Transcribed by Genna Bourchier

Interview Transcript

Michael Doherty (MD): This is Michael Doherty from CKXU speaking with:

Dan O’Donnell (DO): Dan O’Donnell.

MD: Let’s start off with our series of interview questions that we are doing as coverage for the University of Lethbridge’s Collective Bargaining situation. First and foremost, who is your organization? What is their purpose in regards to the University?

DO: I’m the President of the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association or ULFA – U L F A. It’s a legislated union now as a result of a Supreme Court decision in 2016, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labor. It’s also a Faculty Association and under the Post-Secondary Learning Act universities are basically defined by they have a President, they have a Governing Council and they have a Faculty Association. I’m the President of the Faculty Association, which goes back to the founding of the university. 

MD: The next one’s a two-part question. What is your organization’s mission and values and how are you upholding your organization’s mission statement during this time? 

DO: Our mission we define as support, protect, and help make things better. We understand ourselves, partially because it’s a Faculty Association and a union, as having two complementary functions. The union function is to run collective bargaining, to take care of grievances, and ensure that the workplace is fair – that our members are represented properly. In relations with management, the Faculty Association side is universities are really a very different kind of employer from many other sorts of employers. There’s a structural, collegial governance role. Faculty generally play a very important role in things like making academic decisions about programming, hiring senior administrators and those kinds of things. We see one of our roles as creating a space for Faculty to be the best they possibly can be. To give an example, we have many Faculty members on our General Faculties Council, which is a kind of Senate. We support them with infrastructure so that they can speak to each other, debate issues, and come very prepared to the General Faculties Council. Our instructions always to them are we don’t care if you vote, you don’t represent us. In fact, you’re welcome to even take positions that disagree with our position as a union, because we believe that Faculty are their best when they’re able to exercise their duties to the best of their capabilities. As a result, we have a fair bit of trust in our Faculty as well. 

MD: Thank you. As a follow-up, what are your organization’s intended outcomes and goals for the current collective bargaining? 

DO: Well, this collective bargaining job action that we’re in right now, a strike and a lockout, is really about respect. In the end, our University has taken advantage of Faculty members for well over a decade now going back to 2013, the previous time that the government hit the University with an unexpected and severe budget cut. We were the only Faculty Association in the province to give up wages to help the University out. Not only did we never see that back, the University really took that as a sign that there was more they could get out of us. Over progressive rounds of collective bargaining, they really have come at us very hard looking for concessions on money, looking for concessions on language – to the point that in this last round, although the government mandated a financial settlement that they’re supposed to be offering, they actually offered us 1% worse than what the government was recommending they do. In fact once again, ours was the worst table in the province. That’s actually what’s really driving the strike. It’s not so much the money as this idea that you can take your Faculty and take them for granted. We’re seeing lots and lots of places on campus where governance structures are being ignored, where people are being just told what they’ve got to do. We describe it as this University has bosses rather than leaders, and that’s not what you want to see in a university. That’s what the strike is about, the lockout as well. Our outcome is that we want a fair settlement for our members. We’ve dropped 15% against inflation over the last decade. We’re down 8-17% compared to the universities that both management and the union considered to be our comparators. We do want to see a stop of the salary erosion, but by far the biggest thing is we need to see a completely different attitude towards how a university is managed. 

MD: Thank you. What specific overarching services does your organization provide that are currently being impacted by the collective bargaining situation and strike? 

DO: And lockout. First of all, a lockout is very unusual in the sector, universities on the whole don’t block people out. The obvious one is that undergraduate classroom teaching is impacted right now. Our members are not running their classes – they’re not allowed to because the University has locked us out. We are not doing much of the research that we would normally do. Again, this is in our case, not actually our wish. We felt that it was not in the long-term interest of the University for example, not to file grant applications. A lot of that grant money supports students later, but they’ve told us they’re just not going to help us with that kind of stuff. We’re not doing any University service. University Faculty members, because of that governance role, serve on many committees. There’s a Presidential search going on, for example, and we won’t be doing that while this goes on.

MD: Thank you. And how can students and campus members get in touch with a representative from your organization?

DO: First of all, they can email me at [email protected]. That’s probably the easiest way. 

MD: Perfect. We’re going to move on to our second section, which is some current situation questions on the strike and lockout. What is your general position on it? 

DO: We think that first of all, there shouldn’t be a strike or a lockout. We’ve said for ages that there’s no reason why we’re in this situation. The contract that we will settle is already pretty obvious. Mount Royal University is going to vote on a ratification this Thursday of a contract that looks almost identical to what we offered the Board four weeks ago. What we are seeing instead is a University that for fairly ideological reasons is wanting to ensure what they call management rights, which is really their ability to make decisions unfettered by any consultation with the people, to whom those decisions apply. For example, one major sticking point in negotiations right now is both faculty members and the administration pay into a benefits fund that then provides health benefits and things like that to members. But only the administration gets to decide what’s in that benefit fund, in terms of who the carriers are, the precise mix of benefits, which drugs are covered and which are not – that sort of thing. All we’ve been asking for is a representative to help make those decisions so we know we’re getting the best value for the money that we are contributing. We were told there’s absolutely no way, there’s simply no way the University could function if we had that, even though many other universities function like that, including the U of A. I think the general position that we’re in is this is an administration that appears to be willing to, in essence, burn the University down rather than even share joint administration of joint monies, or accept the deal that other universities in the province are accepting, even though those kinds of joint administrative things are very common.

MD: Thank you. And how are you supporting the mental health of your members and the community that you serve during this time? 

DO: This is really hard, it’s a difficult issue. Faculty members by their nature prefer to be in the lab and in the classroom, and love working with students. Again, I think that some of the recklessness that we’ve seen during this job action is really unnecessary job action. It touches on mental health. One of the things the University did here, which is actually quite unusual in the sector, is they cut Faculty members off from all online access. We don’t have emails, we don’t have access to class software, nothing at all. We’re very concerned about that because Faculty members are often the front line and point of contact for students who are suffering, perhaps a mental health crisis of some kind or another. Just before the strike happened, I was contacted by the Administration, ironically using my University email address, asking me if I could get in touch with the student that they were worried about because they know that Faculty members deal with students. In terms of our own members, we’re trying to keep morale up on the picket line. These are a lot of brainy people standing around walking rather than writing books and doing experiments, and that’s going to hurt. We originally had adopted a picketing model that we’ve seen from other industries, and then we decided that we would lighten that so that people had more time on their own or with friends to just think rather than to be constantly in this high pressure labor environment. Above all, we’ve said to our members that we believe that people’s research and working with their Graduate Students and talking to Undergraduates, as long as it’s not about teaching at this moment, is really important to people’s sense of themselves. As a result, we’re not striking against any of those things, and in fact encouraged Faculty members to reach out to students, let them know their alternate email addresses, only to get a letter from the University’s lawyers saying that sounds to me like a rotating strike so we’ll solve that by locking you out. Again, a kind of reckless disregard for the members of our community, frankly. 

MD: And what are your thoughts on funding for post-secondary education and what can campus members do to show their support for post-secondary education? 

DO: I think the funding situation for post-secondary education in Alberta is a disaster and a disgrace. There was recently a study put out by Alex Osher showing just how steep the decline in funding under the UCP has been since that government got in. I think the thing about this is it’s all been done on fairly misleading premises. We had this so-called McKinnon Report that looked at universities early on in the UCPs term, but the way that was structured was to produce the results that they got – they wanted to say that the universities are funded at a rate higher than BC and Ontario and so we need to chop funding to get it down to those rates. In actual fact, what the report really showed, although it was buried in the way they presented it, was Alberta university administrative costs are quite high, but the actual faculty costs and the teaching costs are in many cases, including at the University of Lethbridge, below the comparators in BC and Ontario. Above all, it’s not clear to me that the Alberta advantage is that we end up with universities that are maybe as good as those in BC and Ontario. Alberta, for a province our size, has an extremely strong university sector. We have three major research universities that are being slashed. The citizens of Lethbridge marched in the streets to get the University of Lethbridge set up because they know that a university is a driver of economic change, it means your kids don’t have to leave, your city doesn’t get hollowed out. With these cuts in my department, in the English department, for example, it’s increasingly impossible for students to actually graduate in four years. We simply don’t have the Faculty anymore. We can’t offer the courses.  

MD: Thank you. And do you have any links or websites with additional information that you would like us to post on our website?

DO: We have a bargaining blog which is available at www.ulfa.ca. That’s what I’d recommend users or listeners take a look at. We are writing by and large for our audience, so that means a well-educated audience who don’t like being told what to think. As a result, our blog tends to be fairly neutral and fairly fact based. If people want to see that, they’re welcome to take a look.

MD: We’re going to move into our last section of questions here. These are future/current situation questions. The way it was originally written was if there is a picket line, but since there is a picket line, if there’s a building on campus that is inaccessible, what should a person do if they are a University of Lethbridge student, University of Lethbridge staff, a community member accessing services, or a third-party organization or business? You can answer as few or as many as you would like. 

DO: The simple fact is there shouldn’t be a building on campus that’s inaccessible. If there is, that’s an administrative decision. We’ve heard stories, for example, that security have been harassing students trying to check that they’re not Faculty members. We have a picket line, but the picket line is not in any way even slowing down traffic as it comes on campus. The University administration has really been involved in some games that I think has actually harmed all of the groups you’re talking about – students, staff, community members, and third-party organizations. Despite the fact that they’ve had years of no trouble from their Faculty they brought in surveillance cameras, the surveillance cameras that they couldn’t find the money for when asked by student groups for safety on campus, they brought them out. They’ve got privately hired security guards, sitting in cars, watching everybody that comes in. As I say, I’ve heard from several Graduate Students and Undergraduates following students around. One of the things that they did was they sent us the equivalent of a cease and desist order saying that they wouldn’t help us discover where the edge of the University property was and where the public property began so that we could run our picket lines. They wouldn’t under any circumstances, allow us to put down port-a-potties to accommodate those who need that kind of support., with the idea that somehow that would stop a group of professors who have surveying equipment and are able to deal with all that. That kind of harassment is unfortunately very common on campus. It’s been affecting students and staff. If that’s happened, please report it to [email protected]. Student pressure had the cameras removed, and the only people that I’m aware of who are not coming on campus are members of other unions that have clauses in their collective agreements that allow them to observe picket lines. Even there, for instance, the bus service we were asked, did we want the buses to observe our picket lines? And we said there’s students who need access to campus. We really appreciate you asking, but we think it’s more important that students can get on campus. If there’s trouble accessing buildings, it’s not because of us and the administration have shown themselves actually to be quite willing to make things difficult for everybody on campus in order to make the strike as unpleasant as possible.

MD: Thank you. What impact do you feel that the current situation could or will have on the remainder of the spring? 

DO: It’s an obvious inconvenience for students to have their classes disrupted like this. We’ve been doing our best to try and minimize that disruption. A lot of people don’t know this at the University of Lethbridge, but all independent study courses and almost all graduate courses at the University are taught on a volunteer basis by Faculty – we’re not paid for that work. Students are still charged tuition, but we don’t receive any money for it. The people who do that are for sure going to be working when this is over to minimize the disruption now and afterwards, make sure that it works as well as possible. We would hope that the administration would come to the table. They told us today or yesterday evening that they have no intention of coming to the table. It’s too bad because reading week is coming up. Had we been able to have some negotiations we’d be trying to get things settled so that we could use reading week to make sure that no time is lost in the semester. If things go past reading week, there’s things the University can do – they can shorten exam periods, they can use some of the exam week, maybe they do Saturday classes, I don’t know. Those are things that universities commonly do in order to try and make up lost time. The one thing I would say to your listeners, and this is what I mean by this sort of recklessness and this disrespect that we’re seeing, the University administration sent an email out to students just before our strike vote saying that were the union to vote for a strike, students would be in danger of losing the semester. In my view, this was irresponsible because it absolutely heightened student anxiety. I heard from many students about this, but it has never happened in Canada. The longest strike in Canadian post-secondary was a three month strike at York. They didn’t lose the semester. There are certain professional mentorship things that can be affected by a strike and may require redoing although in most cases, those can be fixed. But no, the University has never lost a semester. I had a student say to me in a meeting, which did I think this was, did I think that the Administration did not know this, despite the fact that we’re two years into very tense labor negotiations, in which case, what are they doing that they don’t understand some basic facts about labor history in this segment? Or, do they know this, but they decided it was tactically useful to scare students anyways? As I said to the student, I’m not sure which is worse and I also don’t know which one it is. When the strike is over, and as far as I’m concerned, the strike could end today. If it had been up to me, we wouldn’t be in the strike, we would have settled on the same terms that Mount Royal is about to settle. Once that’s over, I guarantee that the Faculty at the University of Lethbridge will put that same spirit into making sure students finish the semester as close to the finishing time as possible, that they show in teaching independent students. Unfortunately, it takes two to arrange that and the current approach of the Administration is to really push students into anxiety and to really raise the stakes rather than reduce them, which I think is a real failure of leadership. 

MD: Thank you. The next one’s a two-parter here. What steps can be taken following the situation to promote on-campus unity and how will you support your members and the community you serve as we transition out of this situation?

DO: I’m frankly very worried about what’s going to happen after this is over because we’re seeing the Administration is basically taking a scorched earth approach to negotiations. I’ve been at the University for 25 years. I find it frankly insulting that I’ve got security guards and cameras trying to watch what I’m up to exercising what the Supreme Court has said is my constitutional right for collective bargaining. We have seen truly horrific and extremely misleading public relations from the University Administration about the nature of the bargaining, about the the intentions of the union, about the motivations of the Faculty, to the degree that students have actually written to the Board saying it’s not in any of our interest to do this kind of damage to the Institution. I’ve been hearing from students that there’s fairly horrible public relations coming out that is harming everybody – it harms the reputation of the Institution and everything. I hear that from the line when I’m on the picket line, people say to me, I don’t know how this is going to resolve itself given the truly irresponsible public relations that we’re seeing.  It’s not from our side – we’ve always believed that we have to work again afterwards. That’s why we’re not striking against research, because our position was that a strike is not to destroy the employer, the strike is to get the employer to the table. We weren’t striking against research because that has long-term implications for the University. We’ve been striking only minimally against teaching because again, that’s easily repaired. We’re not seeing the same focus on what happens afterwards from the Administration, so I have serious fears for this. It’s commonly the case when you see a bitter strike, like the Administration seems intent on making this one, that you have several years of terrible labor relations. I’m hoping that they will see the light in a little bit. Unfortunately, they just hired a legal team, the same lawyers that ran the negotiations with the Alberta Medical Association for Minister Shandros when he was the Health Minister. Some of your listeners will know how that went. It ended up with a vote of non-confidence in the Minister, it ended up with a complete breakdown in negotiations and ultimately the Minister had to leave and change ministry. Our Administration have just hired those lawyers to run negotiations here, which again, I don’t think is particularly encouraging to staff. As we transition out, it takes two to make nice afterwards. Certainly we will try our best to make nice, and as I’ve said, members who are willing to donate their time to instruct students are going to donate their time to make sure that the relationships that we can control are repaired and set back to normal as fast as possible.

MD: Thank you so much. That’s the end of our questions. Do you have any closing statements or any facts or statements from earlier that you would like to expand upon before we leave? 

DO: I just really appreciate your interest in this and your listener’s interest in this. As I said, it’s too bad we’re on strike. Not what I wanted to see. And they know my phone number anytime they want to end the strike, we’re willing and able to talk. They just wrote us to say that they’re not interested in talking, but we’re hoping that at a certain point, cooler heads will prevail. 

Please contact [email protected] with any omissions or errors in our transcription.