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Students back faculty at rally

UNBC students spoke, clapped, sang and even invoked monstrous legendary creatures to show support for striking university faculty during a rally at the Prince George courthouse Saturday.
Students and supporters of striking UNBC faculty rally outside the Prince George courthouse Saturday.

UNBC students spoke, clapped, sang and even invoked monstrous legendary creatures to show support for striking university faculty during a rally at the Prince George courthouse Saturday.

The demonstration came as the UNBC Faculty Association tabled a counterproposal during talks with university negotiators aimed at resolving the strike that started on March 5. According to a UNBC-FA statement issued Saturday, the counterproposal contained language that reduced the cost of implementing  its two-year proposal but remained faithful to the union's demand for "sector-norm" compensation. The statement also maintained the union's stance that professors should be paid according to a salary grid.

"We are still waiting for the employer to respond meaningfully to the problem both sides have identified and acknowledged," said Ted Binnema, the UNBC-FA's chief negotiator.

According to the statement, the university's bargaining team said it would contact the union Sunday at noon on when the two sides would meet again. Neither the union nor the university could be reached for comment Sunday.

However, in a statement posted on its website Saturday, UNBC said Saturday's counterproposal from the union "does not represent a substantial shift" from the UNBC-FA's original position that was tabled on June 11.

In an update posted to faculty members, the union detailed UNBC's five-year proposal it forwarded Thursday. It said the university offered no more money but, among other measures, increased the contract's Career Development Increment (CDI).

In a prior statement, Dr. Daniel Weeks, president of UNBC, acknowledged the CDI was at the centre of a substantial compensation gap for UNBC faculty. Thursday's proposal by the university contained an $89 increase to the CDI for the third year (2017) of the agreement. The union said on its website that pegged the CDI at $1,200 and meant its members would continue to receive half the CDI given to those at other institutions across the country.

According to the union Thursday's proposal also contained "a rank-specific salary adjustment" of $361-761 set for the second and third years of the agreement. The UNBC-FA countered by saying the differential boost would have "negligible effects on salary compression and anomalies".

The union said the university also retooled its "merit-based pay scheme", to be introduced in the third year of a deal, by reducing its merit ranking from seven steps to five. The union said there was no criteria for the merit evaluation that would rank faculty against each other.

At Wilson Square, organizer Kelley Ware told the crowd the impetus for the rally sprang from an independent group of "angry, concerned" students who felt their professors were being treated unfairly during the labour dispute.

"Our professors have helped cultivate our minds into something extraordinary," Ware said. "They work tirelessly to support our endeavours and our futures. It is only fair we offer them the same support."

That support, said fellow organizer Suin Lee, comes despite the cost of not only missed classes but lost income for students, like Lee, who also work at the university. 

"They are well paid but it's because they work really hard - professors work over 60 hours a week," said Lee shortly before the Prince George band the Seacides sang it was a Mad World and greeted the crowd with the words: Hello teacher tell me what's my lesson. "Other than teaching, they do research, they volunteer for the community. We shouldn't just take their ten years of education for granted. They deserve what they want."  

The rally came on the heels of another student demonstration held at Canada Games Plaza on Thursday. Organizer Rina Stuparyk said the Thursday rally was more of a 'neutral' event while the event Saturday was more "students taking a stand" with faculty.

"We believe UNBC faculty are what makes UNBC what it is, the first class institution it is," said Stuparyk. "We believe they deserve proper compensation and a pay structure that reflects their work and the work it took to get where they're at as academics.

"A lot of people say the professors want a general wage increase. That's not necessarily the case at all. What they want to do, they want to restructure how professors get paid over time at UNBC. To start off it's pretty good but as time progresses UNBC professors fall off in comparison to other institutions. 

"What happens is a lot of professors may start their careers at UNBC but are they going to stay at UNBC?" 

UNBC Faculty Association president Jacqueline Holler told the crowd "it has been a tremendously difficult journey but what we've been tremendously impressed by is the solidarity that's been shown to us both by CUPE and by our amazing students."

"We thank you from the bottom of our hearts," she said. "Continue please, to walk with us, to shake our hands."

Speakers at the rally also took aim at the province and criticized the ruling Liberal government for not sufficiently funding educational institutions like the Prince George university. 

"This rally represents a reaction to numerous longstanding problems with budgeting and how society views education and is symptomatic of deeper seated issues that have lurked below the surface, not much unlike the Kraken," said speaker Edward Quinlan.

Both Ware and Quinlan warned the government about "blindly" intervening in the strike.

"This government has proven it does not support unions or education, said Ware. "Such a call (for government intervention in the strike) would come at the detriment of a fair agreement and that is not acceptable."

"We have seen two education related strikes (in Prince George) in less than a year," she added. "If that is not a red flag I do not know what is."

At the end of the rally a group of students who marched up University Way and across the faculty picket line in order to protest outside the office of UNBC president Daniel Weeks reiterated their intent to march on Weeks' office again Monday morning at 9 a.m. The students told the Citizen on Friday they wanted UNBC, should the dispute go past March 18, to either compensate students who withdraw from the semester for tuition or fees – which at the rally Saturday they pegged at $16 million in total - or for those who choose not to withdraw to be compensated for missed instructional time.

While Weeks met with the group Friday, the students said he did not adequately address their concerns.