A couple of weeks ago, the government of Nova Scotia introduced a very strange bill in the legislature. Though nobody directly describes it this way, Bill 100 is effectively an academic Chapter 11: a set of rules under which a university can, in effect, declare bankruptcy and re-organize itself.
The basics of the Bill: in the event of a university getting into financial trouble, it will be permitted to submit a “revitalization plan” to government. Assuming said plan finds favour with the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education, the government will, in effect, suspend certain existing provisions of collective bargaining agreements in order to allow the institution to restructure – most notably the bits around financial exigency, which at some institutions require management to go through farcically-complicated rigmaroles in order to do fairly straightforward things, like lay-off staff in chronically under-enrolled programs (see for instance, pages 68-78 of St. FX’s 245-page Collective Agreement – yes, really – for an example). Effectively, these provisions make it impossible, in practice, to carry out serious restructuring; hence, government’s interest in providing institutions with tools to do an end-run around them.
What has faculty unions up in arms are the Bill’s provisions suspending some the right to strike, and the right to grieve during the restructuring process. Opponents of the Bill call these provisions unconstitutional. It’s hard to know what to make of that. On the face of it, these provisions do seem contrary at least to the spirit of recent Supreme Court decisions on the right to strike, though presumably the province’s lawyers aren’t completely asleep at the switch, and have some reasonable grounds for assuming the Bill will survive judicial review.
In some ways, this is a fight over nothing – it’s not as though universities are going to be lining up to use the Bill’s provisions. Any institutions choosing to go down this route would be heading into a reputational and regulatory nightmare, (Julia Wright of Dalhousie makes some useful points re: the inadequacy of the Bill when it comes to externally accredited programs here). It’s a very, very last resort.
So why is the province creating a mechanism no one will want to use? Simple: the real purpose of this bill is to put faculty on notice that the “public university put” is over. Academic unions ignore the issue of universities’ ability to pay ever-increasing wage settlements by assuming that, at the end of the day, universities are “too big to fail”, and governments will come along and bail out universities if spending commitments get too big. By laying-out a mechanism by which universities can fail, government is signalling that it is in fact quite prepared to see them do so. This, in theory, should moderate wage demands.
Various faculty groups have made submissions on the bill (see CAUT’s submission here), and with some justification I think have pointed out the troubling aspects of restricting the right to strike and the right to grieve. What they are – I think willfully – ignoring is institutions’ growing financial crisis, and governments’ growing frustration with the inability of institutions to manage their wage bills. As far as governments are concerned, everybody else in the public sector makes wage sacrifices in difficult times – why do faculty unions think they should be exempt from this? Unless academic unions can come up with a persuasive answer to this question, they should expect more legislation like Bill 100.