Braving the rain Monday, protesters gathered outside Province House to oppose the Universities Accountability and Sustainability Act, otherwise known as Bill 100. For the faculty, staff and student groups assembled, it was clear that the Act represents an assault on both their constitutionally protected rights and the autonomy of universities.
Under the banner of financial transparency and accountability, the Act would allow university administrators dealing with an actual or anticipated deficit to unilaterally trigger a ‘revitalization period’ in which workers’ rights to grieve, collectively bargain, or initiate a collective action such as a strike or a lockout would be suspended.
Provincial funding would then be contingent on the university demonstrating its alignment with the government’s social and economic priorities, and showing “excellent collaboration with industry.”
Speaking at the rally, Canadian Federation of Students’ National Treasurer Anna Dubinski said that with this Bill, the government “has conveniently confused public accountability with government interference.”
Accountability an Empty Concept
But for Matthew Furlong, Communications Officer with the Association of Nova Scotia University Teachers (ANSUT), the concept isn’t so much confused in the context of Bill 100 as it is meaningless.
“Accountability is a concept that’s been evacuated of all sense,” says Furlong.
As Furlong points out, there’s a long list of issues on which students, faculty and staff have sought greater accountability, including the misdirection of university operating budgets – intended for the core academic mission of the university – to fund capital projects, administrative compensation and PR campaigns.
At least in part as a result of unaccountable spending in these areas, some universities have run into serious financial difficulties, as NSCAD did when its $17 million Port Campus ended up being underfinanced.
Nonetheless, there’s no evidence to suggest that faculty and support staff compensation has ever been part of this problem, says Chris Ferns, former President of ANSUT. In fact, increases in administrative remuneration far outstripped gains in faculty salaries in the period from 2004-2011.
Rather than addressing any of these issues with financial mismanagement, Bill 100 actually gives more latitude to administrators, says Ferns.
“Unions have actually managed to succeed in keeping them semi-accountable for a lot of things, so anything that undermines that means that they have a free hand to screw up even more royally than they have so far. It’s complete power without responsibility.”
Part-Time Faculty Particularly Vulnerable
While the implications of the revitalization period are concerning for all faculty, part time professors are particularly vulnerable, says CUPE 3912 President Steve Cloutier.
3912 represents part-time faculty teaching at Saint Mary’s, Dalhousie, and MSVU – all of whom stand to have their already precarious positions further destabilized by Bill 100.
Part-time faculty teach on a course-by-course basis without job security, pensions or benefits. Many of the members of 3912 teach multiple courses at different institutions, and the membership is spread between universities, making people harder to organize.
“The only thing we have that protects us is collective bargaining,” says Cloutier, noting that under this legislation, he would be denied protections such as filing a grievance about a wrongful termination, provided it had been during a revitalization period.
But as much as Bill 100 threatens what little financial stability part time faculty have, it’s as much an assault on their dignity, says Cloutier.
“By taking away our ability to collectively bargain they take away our ability to stand up for ourselves…it’s unjust and it’s downright mean.”
Labour the Cost of Doing Business
For NSGEU Vice-President Jason MacLean, it’s clear that Bill 100 – in particular Section 8, which refers to the revitalization period – is another attempt by the provincial government to reduce the costs of labour by undermining workers’ Charter rights.
If universities need to cut costs, says MacLean, they’d be better off looking at administrative salaries and other expenses, rather than going after the faculty and support staff that form the core of the university.
“They want to cut the costs of labour and that’s not the way to do it. Labour is the cost of doing business.”
Protecting the Right to Strike
Throughout the rally, Bill 100 was repeatedly pronounced “illegal”. As of this past January, that characterization is accurate.
In January, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the right to collective action and bargaining to be part of the Constitutional right to freedom of association, with the Court recognizing the role that collective bargaining plays in reducing a power imbalance between employers and employees.
In certain circumstances, it’s possible to infringe on a Charter right, says Halifax labour lawyer David Roberts. But the infringement has to be justified; in other words, the infringement needs to be as non-intrusive as possible, so that the benefit of the incursion is proportional to the harm.
It’s unclear how allowing university administrators to unilaterally eliminate a right that can redress a power imbalance is proportional to the Bill’s stated goal of increasing accountability, says Roberts.
“Clearly you’re arming the employer with a very potent weapon. The implications…could be very profound and I’m not sure that they’re justifiable at all.”
Gearing up for a Constitutional Challenge
Bill 100 passed its second reading yesterday, and will appear before the Law Amendments Committee this week. This means there’s still time for the Bill to be amended, or else tabled altogether until further consultation can take place. But if it passes on Friday, labour groups say the fight is far from over.
“It most likely will end up a Constitutional challenge,” says MacLean. “I cannot make the decision for [everyone] but I’ll tell you that NSGEU is not one to let things go.”