Hiring of lawyer by UPEI concerns faculty members

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 28, 2016

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.

©Guardian file photo

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.