Looking Back: A Year Since the Strike

Written by Daly Unger

As the end of a relatively normal spring semester draws nearer, it is easy to forget that the situation that students and faculty found themselves in one year ago was drastically different. While this semester has proceeded mostly without hindrance, the Spring 2022 semester experienced an abrupt pause to all classes and events when the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) called its faculty members to a strike which persisted for forty days. During this time, the University of Lethbridge administration enacted a lockout, forcing all faculty off campus and revoking access to their offices, emails and campus resources. The direct result was the end of scheduled classes for all students for an extended period of time. The campus itself was quiet, but the picket lines at U of L campuses were busy, and the collective voices of the faculty were impossible to miss. 

The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association cites the reasons for their strike as: 

  1. The absence of a formal contract between the University of Lethbridge and the Faculty Association for over a year and a half,
  2. No pay increases for any faculty since 2016, and
  3. A lack of respect toward the faculty from the University administration (ULFA, 2022).

Throughoutthe six-week strike, ULFA maintained a picket line populated by faculty members at all three University of Lethbridge campus locations. The largest picket line occupied the edge of the main Lethbridge campus along University Drive. There, dozens of faculty members marched, chanted, and waved signs while volunteers and ULFA members set up coffee stations and washroom facilities for the strikers. 

Ultimately, a settlement between the U of L and ULFA was reached six weeks later. Regular classes resumed on March 23rd, 2022. When students and faculty returned, the semester end date had been modified to accommodate the forty-day delay.Many professors took liberties in restructuring their classes to accommodate that new schedule. Normalcy came eventually, though the impact of the strike certainly had lasting effects on the relationships between the faculty, administration, and the student body. Even now, nearly a year since the summation of the strike, many emotions are still high and tension exists between all levels of the University structure. As hard as ULFA and the U of L work to show a united campus without continued conflict, it is hard to ignore the fallout of the strike. 

University of Lethbridge Faculty Association President Dan O’Donnell

Dan O’Donnell in his office.

ULFA President and U of L faculty member, Dan O’Donnell, spoke to me about the emotions and morale of the faculty; both during the strike and in the year since a version of their demands were finally agreed to. Speaking about the period of collective action, Dan remarked, “what I heard from people at the time is a really strong sense of betrayal… for most faculty members [the University of Lethbridge] is not their employer, it is the place where they practise their profession.” O’Donnell explained that the betrayal ULFA feels they experienced will leave lasting effects on the faculty and will not be easy to overcome. He stated,“the things that led to the strike were respect, parity, and equity … Strides have been made by the administration [toward fostering respect for the faculty] but it has not always gone our way.”

Speaking about his time as ULFA president in the year since the strike, O’Donnell seemed hesitant to say that the faculty’s situation have really improved, “things are starting to get back to normal. That comes in no small part due to the efforts of some members of the administration, it is a little bit inconsistent though … There is still an awful lot of managerialism.”

Any students visiting the University of Lethbridge or driving by the main campus during the strike may have encountered the private security and investigators that the University administration hired. Private security officers watched the strike through binoculars from inside vehicles and behind the nearby treeline and monitored the ULFA picket line. They were a constant presence during the strike, watching the professors and acting as the administration’s physical presence at the picket line for the entire forty-day period.

I contacted members of the administration, board of governors, and the U of L security staff for a statement about the University’s intention in: 

  1. hiring external security staff, 
  2. the cost of hiring that staff for the duration of the strike, 
  3. the purpose of having them watch the strikers, 
  4. and clarification as to whose decision it was to bring on this extra help.

As of the publishing of this article, those questions have not been addressed by any of the board, administration, or security representatives contacted. 

“The university and the board of governors made a number of mistakes,” O’Donnell told me, “one of [their mistakes] I think was the external security, I think it was an attempt at intimidation and I think it was a mistaken attempt that did far more harm than good to the university … We offered several times to have strike protocols in place to govern this sort of thing, but again, the university had said no to that.”

O’Donnell wanted to make clear that no decision by the administration did as much harm as their intimidation tactics, especially the decision to lock out all faculty. O’Donnell stressed that stopping classes was manageable, but by halting research and progress on grants, the administration and the board of governors were doing too much. “[A lock out] affects somebody’s career … I think it was a serious mistake on the part of the University not to realise that labour disputes come and go, but the results of labour disputes are with you forever.”

The image that O’Donnell showed me was of a faculty union still frustrated, though united in their effort to move forward and help the campus move on. O’Donnell told me that during the strike, their regular faculty polls showed that 86% of the strikers were still in favour of the collective action and that the level of high morale present then has persisted throughout the last year. “I was in a meeting the other day,” O’Donnell told me, “and someone stood up and thanked us for the strike … I think a really big thing was the support that we got in the community, that was really good for many of our faculty.”

University of Lethbridge President Mike Mahon

President of the University of Lethbridge, Mike Mahon, declined to meet for an interview, though he did provide me with a statement regarding his thoughts on the year since the strike. From his statement, it is clear that Dr. Mahon has spent his last year trying to look forward and focus on distancing the campus from the negative memories of the Spring 2022 semester. When recollecting the time of the strike, he wrote, “the suspension of classes throughout the labour action was an extremely difficult time for all members of our community and, most notably, our students. Despite the best efforts and intentions of the negotiating teams, the six-week interruption of classes caused stress on the entire campus community and challenged everyone.” 

On the topic of the year following the strike, Dr. Mahon later wrote, “the University understood that much work would have to be done to mitigate long-term effects to the institution.” He then went on to outline the projects and initiatives happening at the University that give him hope for the future and for the student body. 

He concluded by remarking on the end of his tenure as University President and the arrival of the new President Dr. Digvir Jayas. Referencing the extreme turn-around that the University administration has experienced since the strike and the end of several administrative terms, which includes the hiring of a new President & Vice-Chancellor, Provost, Deputy Provost , Chancellor and new Deans in four Faculties, Dr. Mahon commented, “…an infusion of new perspectives is on the horizon.”

Former Students’ Union President Holly Keltke

Holly Kletke in the Meliorist Office.

Holly Kletke was the president of the U of L Students’ Union during the strike. She spoke to me about her experience during that time and how the Students’ Union interacted with the University administration and ULFA. “It was a challenge [for the Students’ Union] because we didn’t have a playbook. I had never been through a strike before. No one else in the room had ever been through a strike before. So, we tried our best to be what we were to the students, which is representation.” The Students’ Union, not unlike the rest of the student body who had been sent home after the faculty lockout, had little power to influence the strike, “we were pushing all the time for contingency plans, we made recommendations every week on what to do, and we requested access to the student email list multiple times.” 

Speaking to me about her thoughts regarding the strike, Kletke said, “I think that there were a lot of things that could have been done better and that could have been improved upon … There could have been more empathy shown towards students and the student body and [more attention] to how the strike was affecting students.”

Over the course of her interview, Kletke wanted to make two things clear, “[the strike] highlighted the importance of student advocacy and what we are really here to do … I think that in a more ‘normal’ year, per se, that student advocacy can be taken for granted.” Finally, Kletke remarked, “as Student Union president, the most frustrating part for me and for my team was being given false information, and this came from both ULFA and the University. We would be told one thing by ULFA, and one thing by the university the next day and there was no way to corroborate those claims.”

Closing Remarks

A year since the summation of the strike, I feel that my interviews shed significant light on the tension and the frustration that remains at every level of the University. From students to professors to the president, each person  I interviewed tread lightly on the topic of the collective action and has their own reflections on the year since. 

Speaking to ULFA president Dan O’Donnell, I was told about a faculty who are still very much immersed in the issues of the strike, saying, “You can’t beat people who are on strike into submission. All you do when you intimidate them is make the problem worse … It’s said that a bad employer is the best organiser and I hate to say it, because I have given twenty five years of my life to this place, this University really worked to help organize the solidarity that we had on the picket line.” The frustration and the continued battle to attain their demands seem very real to ULFA, and the importance of their outward unity and solidarity were clear. 

University of Lethbridge President Mike Mahon and the administration’s focus on the future of the campus and new initiatives they are undertaking point to an administration ready to move on and forget the strike. Often writing about the increase in new student enrollment and the new staff coming to the university’s highest level, it is clear that for the administration and the president, the strike is a black mark on their record that is better to be forgotten than further addressed. 

As I listened to the experience of Holly Kletke and the Students’ Union from the time of the strike, I related to the confusion and frustration they felt. For the student body, the experience was certainly disorienting, though a level of distrust remains as the wounds caused by the handling of the forty-day collective action are slow to heal. 

With the welcoming of new administrative staff, the U of L is looking at a potential period of change and redirection. Incoming President Dr. Digvir Jayas will be assuming a university that is still recovering from and resolving the strike. Jayas has expressed his understanding of the situation he is stepping into and his position is that his arrival is, “definitely going to provide an opportunity for a new direction.” Jayas begins as president of the University of Lethbridge on July 1st, leaving the University of Lethbridge waiting a little longer to see how that new direction will affect the persistent tensions and division between the administration, the faculty, and the student body. Meanwhile, many voices remain unheard. To be published in the next issue of The Meliorist, the diverse perspective of individual professors and students on the year since the strike will be explored alongside a deeper look at the private security who were brought onto campus. 


Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *