The University of St. Michael's College is less than two weeks away from a strike or lockout with no further negotiations planned. Photo courtesy of the University of St. Michael's College

St. Mike's faculty on cusp of strike

  • September 26, 2012

TORONTO - The University of St. Michael's College is less than two weeks away from a strike or lockout with no further negotiations scheduled.

University administration negotiators walked away from the bargaining table Sept. 24. Faculty of theology professors and librarians will be in a legal strike position, or could be locked out by management, as of midnight Oct. 8.

The graduate theology school at St. Michael's, part of the Toronto School of Theology consortium at the University of Toronto, has been working toward a first contract since 18 theologians and librarians sought union certification in 2010. There have been 24 bargaining sessions since January.

Larry Bertuzzi, chief negotiator for the university administration, told The Catholic Register he has "no idea" whether there will be further negotiations.

"Nor do I have any intention of discussing it in public," said the labour lawyer for Miller Thomson LLP.

The sticking point is not money, said Michael Attridge, the unit chair for the University of Toronto Faculty Association — University of St. Michael's College, which is part of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"There's no monetary issue on the table that is a problem," said Attridge, a professor of systematic theology. "What it is, essentially, is job security."

St. Michael's has asked for the right to declare programs redundant and eliminate professors' positions without regard to tenure, Attridge said.

"For us as an academic institution, tenure is for us obviously an important thing," he said. "And its relationship to academic freedom. Tenure helps to ensure the integrity of academic freedom."

Attridge believes negotiations have bogged down because no management representatives in the negotiations have academic backgrounds.

"One of our problems has been to try to explain what we need as academic staff at the University of St. Michael's College to individuals who don't really understand what academics require on the one hand and the particular nature and culture of St. Michael's College and the distinctiveness of that institution," he said.

Since there's never been a strike or lockout before at any of the theological colleges in the Toronto School of Theology, there's no telling how a work stoppage would hit students, Attridge said. Given that students from any of the seven member colleges may be enrolled in St. Michael's courses, labour strife could frustrate more than St. Michael's students.

Some undergraduate courses are taught by members of the bargining unit at St. Michael's and would be affected.

The academic faculty at the theology school sought union certification when St. Michael's administration decided against matching a pay raise negotiated between the University of Toronto and similar faculty across the rest of the campus in 2010. For 25 years there had been a "good faith understanding" that St. Michael's faculty would be paid what professors and librarians in the rest of the university are paid, said Attridge.

"The unilateral decision on the part of administration not to give us the salary increases was a break," he said. "For us it exposed a whole bunch of other issues having to do with transparency and equity in the workplace... For our members these are core issues to what it means to be a university and what it means to be a Catholic university — transparency, fairness, equity — to me they are social justice issues."

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