On April 6, the UOITFA sent a member via flying picket to Charlottetown. By then the University of Prince Edward Island Faculty Association had been on strike for 18 days. Each day of the strike faculty walked the length of the campus boundary on University Avenue. The winter weather may have been biting, but the wind offered some drama carrying union banners and picketers strapped themselves into their sandwich board signage. At the superpicket rally held through the midday shift turnover, flying picketers passed the megaphone around to offer words of support and encouragement, and sometimes a few lines of Twisted Sister lyrics.
Reasons for the job action include a decade-long failure on the part of the university to expand their number of full-time permanent faculty positions, resulting in ballooning course enrollment caps, fewer course options on offer, and an overreliance on contract instructors. The most an instructor working full-time on contract could earn per year is $35,000, meaning many UPEI instructors fall below the national poverty line. Contract positions also mean uncertainty of future work given renewal is not guaranteed. UPEI is an example of a trend in higher education toward precarious labour, where university administrations relegate their workforce to positions that lack access to job security, wage standards, and benefits. Where administrations cannot claw back the standards set in collective agreements, they phase out the job titles those standards are attached to.
The UPEI Faculty Association was also calling attention to a toxic work culture, particularly the Board of Governors’ use of non-disclosure agreements to bury complaints of sexual misconduct. Two employees broke their NDAs in 2021, exposing themselves to risk, in order to publicly report that they had filed complaints of sexual misconduct against university president Alaa Abd-El-Aziz and had settled with the university. Abd-El-Aziz promptly resigned (citing his health) and the day after his resignation UPEI announced they were committing to an independent review of the allegations, and more broadly of their workplace policies and procedures. More complainants have come forward since, some describing how they had been driven from the university, having to find work elsewhere, while their perpetrators remained at UPEI. The scandal prompted legal reform, with PEI becoming the first province to pass legislation that imposes limits on the use of NDAs—though the law does not apply retroactively. For its part the Faculty Association argued through this strike for improvements to workplace health and safety because faculty deserve protection from harassment and discrimination; they deserve better than the longstanding systemic conditions that led to sexual misconduct with impunity.
The same Board of Governors responsible for UPEI’s toxic work culture refused to engage in good-faith bargaining in the nine months leading up to the strike, refused to return to the bargaining table in the weeks following the strike deadline, and walked away from mediation paid for by the provincial government. The strike ended after a long 26 days, with an agreement that includes commitments to hiring 20 full-time faculty members, gains for sessional staff, and annual three percent wage increases. But it was clear on the picket line that faculty will remember they cannot trust their employers.
The UOITFA was among the many Faculty Associations across Canada that sent representatives to PEI week after week flags in hand. We will keep showing up for each other in the strikes to come, because protecting the working conditions necessary for high-quality education is a collective struggle.