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The University of Alberta campus in Edmonton, on Aug. 26, 2016.CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Globe and Mail

The University of Alberta is asking faculty and non-academic staff to take a 3-per-cent pay cut, accept reduced benefits and pay back wages they’ve already received as it negotiates new collective agreements following a big drop in provincial funding.

The university has begun the bargaining process with its faculty and non-academic staff but new contracts have not yet been agreed upon.

The university’s opening position in both sets of negotiations calls for significant cuts. One of the proposals is that wages for tenured faculty would be cut by 3 per cent and made retroactive to February so that pay earned over the months before a deal is reached would gradually be returned to the university over the course of a year. A similar proposal for non-academic staff would apply to wages earned after March 31.

“We’re facing an employer that’s looking to roll back wages and roll back benefits and roll back [contract] language. So it’s been tough,” said Ricardo Acuna, president of the association of academic staff at the University of Alberta. “We’ve been called upon to do more, because of COVID. But also because of government cutbacks on campus, our workloads have increased, our stress loads have increased.”

Tenured faculty would also see a 15-per-cent reduction in the value of their benefits under the university’s proposal, Mr. Acuna said. The university is also aiming to reduce the top salary scale for sessional instructors, who earn far less than tenured faculty, by 15 per cent, he said.

The university said it faces a difficult funding situation.

“The postsecondary sector is evolving quickly in Alberta, and around the world. At the U of A, the financial pressures we face are significant,” the University of Alberta said in a statement addressed to non-academic staff negotiations. “We recognize that all members of the U of A community are working hard to address current crises; however, to sustain our excellence in teaching, learning and community engagement, our financial reality needs to be recognized in all of our activities, including collective bargaining.”

The U of A has had its provincial funding cut by $170-million over the last 2½ years and it expects to lose a further $54-million by 2023. It acknowledged that it expects this to be a very challenging round of collective bargaining and said it aims to mitigate potential job losses. Its opening proposals are a starting point, the university said.

The university recently proposed significant tuition hikes in some programs to make up for reduced provincial government support.

The U of A has already lost 800 workers through layoffs and early retirement in the last two years and expects to lose a further 400 in the months ahead, Mr. Acuna said. Most of those job losses are in the non-academic staff category, he added.

Jay Runham, a web designer who has worked at the university for nine years, is among the non-academic staff facing similarly difficult negotiations. He called the proposal to repay already earned wages “an absolute slap in the face.”

“Taking money from out of the pockets of hard-working people is just absolutely devastating at a time like this,” Mr. Runham said. “What kind of an effect is this divisiveness going to create for staff and the university for years to come?”

Faculty in Canada have fared relatively well in bargaining with salaries and benefits that compare favourably internationally, but financial pressures brought on by the pandemic and reductions in provincial spending may soon begin to bite. The most dramatic case has played out at Laurentian University in Sudbury, where 110 faculty positions were eliminated last month in a court-supervised insolvency process that will significantly shrink the university.

Mr. Acuna said the proposed wage clawbacks are an indication of how aggressive the university’s bargaining stance is this time around.

“We are a top five university, and our academic staff are not in the top five of compensation nationwide, and we’re dropping,” Mr. Acuna said. “We’re not compensated to the level where we should be to remain competitive nationally.”

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