June 13th, 2024

Lessons learned from the U of L strike/lockout

By Lethbridge Herald on April 6, 2022.


As an institution dedicated to the creation and dissemination of knowledge and creative work, the members of the University of Lethbridge community should review their experiences as a consequence of the university’s recent strike/lockout. Such a review is important especially in light of the many financial and career negative impacts the strike/lockout imposed on those for whom the university was created: its students. 

Those students had no say in the process that unfolded as a consequence of the strike/lockout, and are now endeavouring to pick up the pieces in order to finish their semester of studies. Any review of the University’s recent strike/lockout experience should identify how any future episodes likely to lead to collective bargaining impasse might be approached, in order to minimise impacts on the student body, as a matter of priority.

Union environments where a third party (such as a student body) is dependent on the activities of union members and their employers are not designed with the best interests of those third parties in mind, in a strike/lockout impasse resolution model. First-responders, health care and education are such examples of these union environments. 

Employees in some of these environments provide “essential services”, the interruption of which “would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public”, or where those services “are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law or public security.” In these essential services situations, there is an agreed curtailment of the strike/lockout tool as a path in the solution to a collective bargaining impasse. This designation of essential services does not apply to the education sector, where most activities are not deemed “essential services”, in the meaning of the Alberta Labour Relations Code (ALRC). 

This does not mean, however, that given the rights to strike/lockout, it is best exercised in these environments as a dispute resolution tool, given the likely toll on affected third parties.

Thus, before the university is again in a situation where there is a likelihood of collective bargaining impasse, parties to such prospective impasse ought to develop a dispute resolution approach that places students’ interests at the centre, where strike/lockout is only one of the options to be considered, and then only as a last resort. 

The ALRC provides additional routes to the resolution of collective bargaining impasse than the strike/lockout model. This can take the form of mediation, voluntary interest arbitration and compulsory interest arbitration. 

Indeed, in the recent strike/lockout at the University of Lethbridge, “enhanced mediation” was used to resolve the collective bargaining impasse, albeit after strike/lockout had already occurred. Furthermore, at Acadia University, the academic staff union and Board of Governors there agreed to binding arbitration to settle their collective bargaining impasse, but only after the union had been on strike for four weeks, with all of the disruption to students which that entailed.

Free collective bargaining at Alberta’s universities has also been inhibited owing to the likely issuance of confidential directives from the Minister responsible for the 2019 Public Sector Employers Act (PSEA). 

The issuance of such government directives interferes with the free, collective bargaining by parties to a collective agreement. Such directives may cover factors such as the term of collective agreements and their fiscal limits. “Fiscal limits” is a broad term, which can encompass collective agreement language elements that add indirectly to universities’ operational costs. While boards of governors can theoretically ignore such ministerial directives, it is not in their interests to do so, as some form of retribution for non-compliance to a directive can be meted out.
    This is therefore a tacit abridgement of freedom of association rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ministerial directives institute an “immovable object” to free collective bargaining, making collective bargaining impasse that much more likely, with all of the negative consequences we have seen in the recent University strike/lockout. 

If governments truly believe in free, collective bargaining as the means to reach a collective agreement between unions and employers in post-secondary education, they should cease using confidential directives, given the obvious costs that can arise through the introduction of a potentially high measure of inflexibility to collective bargaining, that can readily induce impasse.

The university strike/lockout has also exhibited a level of confusion and adversariality into the current collective bargaining environment in post-secondary education. Evidence of this confusion is seen when one reviews the many Letters to the Editor of the Herald by University of Lethbridge researchers.

 In these communications, it is pointed out that many researchers did not wish to “strike with respect to research”. However, when voting (as a member of the academic staff union) to go on strike, the academic staff are asserting their Charter Right to withdraw their labour. 

That is, all of their labour, with respect to all of their duties.

The strike/lockout at the university has also created a highly adversarial environment between academic staff and the university’s administration/Board of Governors. 

This adversariality is a new, and unwelcome, by-product of the current (“enhanced”) labour relations environment for post-secondary education in Alberta. Anyone having followed social media postings during the strike/lockout will have seen this clearly. 

The future use of interest-based mediation and/or arbitration in resolving collective bargaining impasse could be a contributor to the de-escalation of this adversarial environment.

No-one wishes to be in a strike/lockout situation, least of all university students. So, in the interests of doing the best for our students in the future, all of us in the University community should seek to improve how we interact in collective bargaining, and use the widest possible range of tools to resolve impasse, so that students are not again victims of a failed collective bargaining process. Removing government interference from the collective bargaining process would also be welcome.

Dr. Christopher J. Nicol, Professor of Economics

Former Chief Negotiator, University of Regina Faculty Association

Former Chief Negotiator, Governors of the Board of the University of Lethbridge

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Southern Albertan

Let us not suffer any illusions, that in the big picture, the Kenney UCP’s drastic funding cuts to post-secondary and bringing about harassing busybody regulations to them, is the bottom line re: this strike/lockout. This vicious and unwise attack by the Kenney UCP on postsecondary institutions is yet another reason to give them the boot next year.


I was struck by this comment, made in reference to the Government’s confidence directive to the UofL BoG: “While boards of governors can theoretically ignore such ministerial directives, it is not in their interests to do so, as some form of retribution for non-compliance to a directive can be meted out.”

Importantly, the primary responsibility of each and every member of the UofL Board of Governors is to make decisions in support of the institution’s interests, not with reference to their own self interest. One does wonder how many members of the UofL’s BOG sheepishly took direction from the Province with their eyes fixed on a higher-status and more lucrative patronage appointment?

Last edited 2 years ago by TJohnston