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Loss of faculties

Strike rumours continue to worry students at Saint Mary’s University. Mike Fleury sits down at the bargaining table.

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John Chisholm has a busy winter ahead of him, and he’d like to keep it that way.

The third-year Saint Mary’s University student is trying to fast-track his marketing degree. To do that, Chisholm is taking six classes in the coming winter semester. Technically, it’s an overloaded schedule, but if all goes according to plan, Chisholm expects to graduate after the fall semester in 2007.

And all this talk about a possible faculty strike at SMU? That isn’t part of the plan.

“If they do strike, it completely screws me,” explains Chisholm. “All my courses next semester are pre-reqs. Basically, the way my year works, it could put me at a standstill for eight months. So, yeah—I’m pretty worried about it.”

The Saint Mary’s University Faculty Union’s contract expired on the 31st of August. Faculty and administration at SMU have been meeting since June 12 to try and negotiate a new agreement. If negotiations ultimately fail, SMU faculty has already voted in favour to strike. A strike would also mean that students working for professors—doing research or lab work, for example—would not be paid.

Chisholm isn’t the only student who’s worried. Zach Churchill, president of the Saint Mary’s University Students’ Association, says that SMUSA has been fielding calls daily from students who are worried about how a labour stoppage might affect their year.

“A lot of our students feel really out of the loop,” he says. “We try to communicate as best we can, but we can only do so much.”

Rather than picking sides in the dispute, SMUSA is running a neutral campaign on behalf of SMU students encouraging a

resolution before 2007. In a day and a half, SMUSA handed out over 1,000 pins featuring the slogan, “Don’t forget about us!”

“We’re just hoping they serve as a visual reminder of who their decisions effect the most,” says Churchill.

The faculty could have gone on strike as early as December 7, but both sides have committed that there will be no strike or lockout before the new year. Although negotiations broke down in mid-November, both sides have recently agreed to start talking again with help from a third-party mediator.

Paul Dixon, the registrar at SMU, has been on both sides of the table in his 27 years at the university, both as a faculty member and administrator. Despite the concerns on campus, Dixon is confident that the faculty and administration will find a way to work things out.

“Saint Mary’s has had a faculty union longer than almost any other school in the country,” he says, “and they’re probably the only university that has never had a faculty strike.”

Dixon says maintaining that perfect track record ought to be a high priority.

“In terms of our reputation, our long term future, recruiting students, that sort of thing, a labour disruption will not do us any favours whatsoever,” he says. “But, I’m confident—I just view this as another family dispute. But I don’t view this as anything that rips the family apart. I respect both sides. And they’ll work it out.”

Among the issues, there have been disagreements about professors’ salaries, benefits and flexibility in retirement. Churchill says the students’ loyalties are divided.

“I’ve had students say that we should be in solidarity with the faculty union, and I’ve heard students saying that we should be blasting the faculty union because they’re asking for more money when our tuition is continually going up.

“But, generally, students just want a compromise. We have a student population here where 15 percent come from outside of the country, who are going home for the holidays…they don’t want to pay the money to come back to a campus where there are no classes.”

John Chisholm feels the same way, and he wouldn’t be shy about telling the negotiators how he feels.

“I would say, ‘Listen, I’m on a career path. When I graduate, I’m going to be able to make money to help finance the degree that I have, but if you don’t work this out, that’s at least four more months that I don’t have my degree—which I’m fully capable of getting—four months that I’m not going to be earning money, or out in the world, or getting on with the rest of my life.’”

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