Hiring of lawyer by UPEI concerns faculty members

Teresa Wright
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University of Prince Edward Island has hired a lawyer from Halifax as its chief negotiator in advance of contract talks with the university’s faculty.

The University of Prince Edward Island has hired a lawyer from Halifax as its chief negotiator in advance of contract talks with the university’s faculty.

Brian Johnston, a partner with Stewart McKelvey, has been retained to lead the negotiating team for UPEI.

A spokesperson for the university said hiring an expert from outside the administration is not uncommon, noting Johnston’s experience in labour negotiations.

“It is common to have an expert well versed in collective bargaining to lead each team,” said Nicole Phillips, associate director of marketing and communications for the university.

“UPEI is pleased to have someone with Mr. Johnston’s experience for finding creative solutions lead us as we work together with the faculty association to achieve a new collective agreement.”

But the university’s move to hire Johnston this early in the process has created a wave of concern among many faculty members on campus.

Johnston’s work as chief negotiator for Mount Allison University in 2014 has heightened these concerns. Mount Allison faculty went on strike for three weeks in the midst of its contract talks before a mediator was called in.

Faculty members who spoke to The Guardian this week said they are concerned the faculty’s pension plan may become an issue of contention at the bargaining table.

The university has a defined benefit pension plan, which has seen the number of actively contributing members decrease while the number of pensioners has increased over the last three years.

In addition, the university has had to pay millions in additional payments into the pension plan due to shortfalls in recent years. The most recent actuarial report in 2014 found a significant gap between assets in the pension fund and the cost of providing the pensions. This meant the university had to commit to a further $1 million in annual special payments into its pension fund.

These financial pressures are now coupled with concerns over a freeze or cut in funding from the province this year as the MacLauchlan government tries to present a balanced budget this spring. Some faculty members have expressed concern the university administration may look for more shared risk within the pension plan to alleviate costs for the university. Others worry the administration might push for a complete move away from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

Faculty members who spoke to The Guardian said they are not expecting big salary increases, but many believe negotiations could be tense.

The possibility of a strike has been raised among some faculty members and even among some high-ranking government officials.

UPEI Faculty Association president Nola Etkin remained tight-lipped about her expectations for the contract talks. She would only say the union is in the midst of preparing its negotiating team.

“Negotiations have not yet begun, the teams have been named but they’ve not yet met,” Etkin said.

“All I can really say at this point is that we’re committed to negotiating a fair agreement at the table with the employer.”

The collective agreement between the UPEI board of governors and the faculty association expires April 30.


Organizations: University of Prince Edward Island, Mount Allison University, UPEI Faculty Association UPEI board

Geographic location: Halifax

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Recent comments

  • Profsdeservethedollars
    January 28, 2016 - 19:19

    Pretty hard to have much sympathy for a group making over 100k per year? Do you think they won a gameshow to get that kind of salary? Going to school for 7+ yrs isn't a picnic, and if you ask me 100K is a perfectly fair price to pay for their knowledge. It irks me when people are so easy to shoot down a class of people who clearly earned what they receive.

  • Fed Upjohn
    January 28, 2016 - 17:33

    This is what PEI is noted for - HIRING FROM OFF ISLAND!!!!! There has to be a lawyer here that the university can hire?!. They'll be paying top dollar PLUS mileage for who knows how many trips! Big surprise, when they brought the President in from British Columbia... Of course, why should the university worry? They'll just jack up the tuition and charge double for the books!

    January 28, 2016 - 12:25

    I'm sorry, but this is a non story or worse yet, the Guardian is trying to make a story out of nothing. Virtually every large employer hires professionals to lead them in bargaining. It's not something you do every day. As well a strike is always a possible outcome of unsuccessful negotiations so saying so before the negotiations have even begun is simply fuelling fears and emotions. I'd rather have no news reported than a reporter making issues out of something just to get a headline.

  • Quiet Observer
    January 28, 2016 - 08:47

    Pretty hard to have much sympathy for a group whose members make over $100,000/year and have the best benefit plan in the province, and teach from September through April, but then have no teaching from May through August. Defined benefit pension plans are too expensive for anyone to afford now and some other set-up has to be found. The University, in today's fiscal reality, cannot afford this. And if Profs feel they do not want to work for a more frugal arrangement, then they should feel free to leave and go back to the private sector where they have to work 12 months a year for less money with less benefits.

  • suggestions
    January 28, 2016 - 08:40

    I can sympathize with the faculty position as the looming drop in student enrollment might lead the university to bargain hard. However, there's a lot of grey hair in academia and should a surge of retirements occur, if UPEI were to have a less advantageous contract than say Dal or UNB or Acadia or Mt A, then UPEI might be caught short-handed. Tough call either way. One thing that all Atlantic universities ought to be doing is pooling their pension plans under a common pension corporation. Think along the lines of OMERS (Ontario Municipal Employees), Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, etc. In fact, Ontario is late to the game in merging university pensions into a multi-employer, jointly sponsored pension plan. The creation of the Colleges of Applied Arts & Technology ( CAAT ) pension plan in the late 1960s for Ontario's community college employees is only now being expanded to include all university pension plans under its umbrella. The Atlantic region should seriously consider doing this for all of its university pension plans.

  • no thanks
    January 28, 2016 - 05:53

    why do groups like these professors or like island teachers often negotiate without proper professional guidance ??????????????????????????????????????????????

    • sentance
      January 28, 2016 - 20:42

      Faculty have a good bit of professional guidance, advice and resources available to them through the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)