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A strike at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta, is entering its fourth week as faculty accuse the university of failing to negotiate in good faith.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

A series of faculty strikes has hit Canadian universities as rising inflation and provincial wage mandates complicate negotiations with professors, who are fed up with pandemic work conditions and what they call a lack of respect from their employers.

The strikes, most of which have now been settled, shut down classes at several institutions just as students were returning to in-person lectures. With several negotiations ahead, including a simmering dispute in Ontario’s college sector, more disruptions are possible.

A strike at the University of Lethbridge is entering its fourth week as faculty accuse the university of failing to negotiate in good faith. A month-long strike at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., came to an end this week after both sides agreed to binding arbitration. Faculty at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., were also on strike for about 10 days in February, Concordia University in Edmonton had a 10-day strike in January and a five-week strike at the University of Manitoba was settled in December.

The pandemic’s toll and some of its economic side effects are playing an important role in shaping labour negotiations. Inflation sailed past 5 per cent last month, meaning employees are starting to feel their earnings eroded by increased food and fuel costs. Universities, as part of the broader public sector, face pressure to keep salary increases to a minimum.

Faculty also say they’re tired and frustrated by two years of pandemic working conditions. While they’re willing to accept wage increases that fall short of inflation, they’re demanding concessions elsewhere to compensate.

At Lethbridge, for example, the faculty association says the university has offered a two-year wage freeze followed by a little more than 1-per-cent raises in Years 3 and 4 of the contract. Joy Morris, a professor of mathematics and a spokesperson for the faculty association, said faculty are realistic about pay raises, but they want to see working conditions and workloads improve.

“We’re being asked to do more with less,” Prof. Morris said.

The university administration says it’s trying to balance affordability for students with rising faculty costs, which it says have increased more than 30 per cent over the past decade.

For students, the strikes are a frustrating coda to a two-year period of classes see-sawing between online and in-person. Some feel cheated of the university experience they hoped for, and the strikes present another unwelcome obstacle.

“Students want their professors to stay at their institution and get a fair deal. But it’s frustrating to have to put classes on hold,” said Holly Kletke, president of the Lethbridge student union.

It’s the first time in recent memory that so many university strikes have occurred in such a short period, according to Brenda Austin-Smith, a professor at the University of Manitoba and president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Prof. Austin-Smith said there are several other universities with agreements set to expire in the next few months where negotiations may be difficult. At her university, the recent strike was the second in just five years.

Last week a court awarded the U of M faculty association more than $19-million in a landmark court settlement after the provincial government was found to have interfered in bargaining during the 2016 contract negotiations.

Prof. Austin-Smith said many faculty associations are upset about the erosion of collegial governance – the idea that faculty and administrators should collaborate on the running of the university. She also said she’s seeing increasing attempts by provincial governments to intervene in the workings of universities and colleges.

“The concern is that there is a hollowing out of this space of collegial governance where the subject experts, the pedagogical experts, have a say in how things are done,” she said.

In Ontario, academic employees at the province’s 24 colleges have been working to rule – a form of strike – for the past several months. Classes have continued, but staff have stuck to the letter of their employment agreements.

Wages have not been a primary issue, since provincial public-sector wage legislation caps increases at about 1 per cent. But workload has been contentious. A final offer was rejected by the 16,000-member academic faculty and the union said negotiations are at a stalemate.

“It’s an incredibly frustrating moment for faculty,” said JP Hornick, a professor at George Brown College and chair of the faculty bargaining team. “We’re coming to a crisis point.”

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