More than three weeks into a strike that shut down classes at the University of Northern British Columbia, faculty are returning to classrooms and taking their grievances to the Labour Relations Board.
UNBC faculty association vice president Paul Siakaluk announced the decision Friday afternoon.
“The special mediator has adjourned bargaining on both sides, so to continue classes we will take down picket lines at 4:30 this afternoon,” he said during a news conference.
The provincial government appointed the special mediator Tuesday. The two sides remained at an impasse when negotiations were suspended Thursday.
With regular classes scheduled to end Dec. 3, faculty opted to pull down the pickets and return to classrooms. The association says it will continue other forms of job action like refusing to sit on committees.
Siakaluk said the Labour Relations Board could take some time to rule on the association’s complaint. It’s accusing the university of bargaining in bad faith, saying UNBC negotiators are attempting to renege on items the parties had already agreed on.
“Our members have a firm resolve to get a fair, sector-norm agreement,” he said. “I’d rather be in my lab with my students talking about their research projects. It’s been incredibly frustrating for our members that by Nov. 29 we still have not resolved the disagreements between the two sides and have a collective agreement in place.”
The university’s chief negotiator, Barb Daigle, is no stranger to bargaining disputes. UNBC’s interim vice-president of finance, people, organizational design and risk arrived in Prince George in 2015 after 12 years with the University of Saskatchewan.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees filed three unfair labour practice complaints with the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board after a month-long 2007 strike. The union accused Daigle, chief negotiator for the administration, of refusing to take a tentative agreement to the university’s board of governors if a union representative participated in a news conference. At the conference, faculty, staff and students were to call for an external review of labour relations.
Daigle left amidst controversy in July 2014 following the high-profile dismissal of a professor who published a letter that criticized the administration’s restructuring and budget cuts.
Last year, Daigle spoke at the Canadian Association of University Business Officers conference in Vancouver and said that managers had discussed closing UNBC.
“We were at the beginning of developing the 10-year plan to shut UNBC down, because we had some significant issues that needed to turn around and budget, certainly, was one of them,” she said, adding, “Have we re-emerged yet? I don’t think so. It’s a journey, right. But I think we’re no longer on that journey down towards death.”
In a Nov. 19 interview with The Tyee, Daigle denied making the comments. A video of her presentation, posted online by the conference organizers, confirmed she had made the statements.
The organization has since removed the video. In an emailed statement it said it plans to restrict resources to members in future. “We decided to immediately take down the presentation referenced in your email on our own accord as we felt the information was being taken out of context.”
In a statement, UNBC president Daniel Weeks called the resumption of classes “an important gesture that provides us the ability to continue bargaining, focus on people, and resume normal operations.”
“As for the FA’s decision to file an unfair labour practice, the Employer understands that it is the prerogative of the Faculty Association to file this claim,” the statement said. “The Employer will present our position to the Labour Board.”
Friday’s announcement provides some certainty to students who have been out of class for three weeks.
Jade Szymanski is an outdoor recreation and tourism management student who hoped to complete her degree this semester. She has a job with Parks Canada and an apartment waiting for her in Vancouver.
But the strike threatened to delay her graduation.
“Students are pretty frustrated on multiple levels, whether it’s being prepared for exams or getting the support they need for being able to teach themselves the materials,” she said earlier in the week.
As students prepare to return to campus Monday, details of how the semester will be salvaged are unknown. University officials have discussed options that include extending classes, which were to end Dec. 3, into the exam period or even into January or modifying class requirements and deadlines.
None of the options come without upheaval for students.
“I feel like I have no closure on this chapter of my life,” Szymanski said.