Though no union wants to strike, the reality is many are forced to when their Employer tunes out workers’ needs. 

And despite strike being a last measure, being prepared to go to the picket line is an effective way for unions to get the best deal possible for their members, speakers at a recent AASUA panel said. 

The panel, entitled “The Strategy of Strike: How unions use job action to get the deal they deserve” was held February 14 at noon via Zoom and co-hosted by AASUA and the Non-Academic Staff Association (NASA). It addressed the possibility of strike in the post-secondary sector due to recent changes to Alberta labour law. 

Panelists included: Rick Brick, an AASUA Member and Canadian Association of University Teachers Defence-Fund Trustee; Christopher Burton, University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) President, and Fathiya Wais, Internal Organizer for NASA. 

ULFA went on strike in 2022. Their strike lasted 40 days. 

“None of us had ever participated in a strike before either at a university or elsewhere,” ULFA President Chris Burton said. “It wasn’t just the membership, it was Executive as well.” 

Before a contentious atmosphere at the bargaining table forced the union to strike, Burton said the university community was already searching for a way to take action to protect post-secondary education following the extreme budget cuts imposed by Jason Kenney. 

“Over a year before the strike there was a big rise in solidarity between faculty, students, and non-academic staff,” Burton said. “Academic staff at Lethbridge knew they were not alone. They knew that they had the support of much of the university community.”

Campus-wide solidarity 

Rick Brick, an AASUA Member who has been to over ten academic staff strikes around Canada as a result of his position on the Canadian Association of University Teachers Defence-Fund, said one thing he has noticed across the country is the support from students.

“Students are probably the most affected after the people on the picket line,” Brick said. “Yet they’re out there talking to the picketers and thanking them. They recognize that the reason they’re at the university isn’t because of the buildings, and it isn’t because of the Board of Governors.

“It’s because of the academic staff and the quality of the people who are supporting the operations.”

Fathiya Wais — NASA internal organizer — said inter-union solidarity was just as palpable at the strikes she has been a part of, with other workers arriving early to their shift to have a coffee and support their colleagues by waving flags and standing at the picket line. 

Wais formerly worked for the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. 

“Everyone is striving to get things like good working conditions and better salaries,” Wais said. “That’s the component of solidarity in the struggle.”

Job action wins 

Since their strike, Burton said the attitude from university of University of Lethbridge administration has shifted considerably. 

“It’s now a less combative attitude,” he said, giving the example of the settling of an Alberta Labour Relations Board complaint which ULFA filed after the previous provost spent an official meeting yelling at the ULFA President of the day. 

“Successive provosts had been bullying staff, and this may have now come to an end,” Burton said. 

He also noted five out of seven senior administrators are now fresh faces, there has been a shift to greater transparency around Labour Relations, and the Employer has become more proactive in getting ahead of issues instead of “waiting for them to erupt.”

Understanding teaching conditions are learning conditions

Rick Brick concluded the panel by sharing one lesson from the picket line that he sees as particularly relevant to both AASUA and NASA. 

“We all need to understand the political climate,” Brick said. “Politicians can be affected by hearing from voters, and Boards of Governors can be affected by hearing from politicians, and students, and parents.”

“We want to reach out to those groups and we want to talk to them about things that are important to them that are also important to our members. And there is no doubt that good treatment of staff means good teaching conditions, and we need to make sure everyone understands that.

“We are only going to strike if we have to, but we have to be ready.”