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Laurentian profs say they are not to blame for university’s financial crisis

LUFA official said he fears collective agreement will be ‘totally denied’ in CCAA process
Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) secretary-treasurer Jean-Charles Cachon is seen here in 2015. (File)

In response to court documents filed as part of Laurentian’s insolvency proceedings taking aim at the union, a representative of Laurentian University’s faculty association said professors are not to blame for the university’s financial crisis.

The university is attempting to lay off staff and achieve a new deal with the faculty association, which it says represents 60 per cent of salaries and benefits paid by the institution, as it deals with its insolvency through the Companies’ Creditors’ Arrangement Act (CCAA).

The documents filed with the courts and the information made public by Laurentian to date make a lot of mention of the Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA). 

The report of the proposed CCAA monitor, Ernst & Young, said LUFA and Laurentian’s board of governors have been in negotiations for a new collective agreement since April of last year. The collective agreement expired in June 2020.

The document said that management had informed LUFA of the severe financial challenges faced by Laurentian and the possibility that the university could run out of money. Accordingly, the university has indicated that it is seeking various concessions. 

However, despite extensive bargaining between LU and LUFA, including with the assistance of a mediator, no material progress has been made on a new collective agreement.

The document also said there are currently approximately 102 active unresolved grievances filed by LUFA, as well as an ongoing unfair labour practice complaint and a judicial review with respect to the provost’s decision in 2020 to suspend enrolment in 17 academic programs with very low enrolment.

The report also contends the terms of the LUFA collective agreement are “above market in several respects, and that issue is exacerbated by the tenuous labour relationship between LU and LUFA.”

When news of the CCAA filing broke, requested an interview with Laurentian University president Robert Haché, but the university declined.

LUFA secretary-treasurer Jean-Charles Cachon said the union had been trying to find out what was really going on with Laurentian’s finances for months without success, but the court filings finally shed some light.

“We sent an extensive list of questions to the administration about the financial situation,” he said.
“They only answered a very small part of the questions that we had. We were very puzzled because they kept repeating the same thing and rehashing the same thing, that our salaries were too high.”

He said the narrative from LU’s administration was that five or six per cent needed to be cut from the professors’ salaries, and everything would be all right. Meanwhile, the university was paying millions per year to service commitments such as its long-term debt for capital projects and accumulated deficit.

“But the operations themselves are not at a deficit,” Cachon said. “They have surpluses every year, except for I think there was one year where there was not a surplus.”

Laurentian had gotten into the cycle of using lines of credit from banks to cover its expenses after tuition money ran out until the next infusion of cash, he said.

But court documents filed as part of the CCAA process show one line of credit was cut off, and they have agreed not to use another line of credit.

In a press release, LUFA said Laurentian’s financial problems are caused by “poorly considered and reckless administrative decisions and the erosion of public university funding.” 

The union also said it has “repeatedly raised concerns about the increasingly secretive and non-consultative approach the university administration has taken to making important financial decisions.”

In terms of professors’ salaries, which the court filings are saying are “above market,” took a look at data provided by Statistics Canada on the subject. 

In 2018-19, the last year the information was available for the university, Laurentian professors were paid, on average, $147,700. 

That number is more than $20,000 higher than their Northern Ontario counterparts at Nipissing University, who were paid on average $125,300 for the same period, and only slightly lower than professors at the much larger University of Western Ontario ($151,075).

Cachon explained the higher average salaries by saying that there has been a hiring freeze at Laurentian, so there are a higher proportion of more experienced professors, who earn more because of their years of employment. 

Starting salaries at Laurentian, he said, are actually some of the lowest in the market.

“We have a lot of people who are staying on because they know that they will never be replaced,” he said. “That will mean the disappearance of their department or programs.”

The union official said actually he has to wonder why Laurentian is so top-heavy with management. There are 350 professors and about 1,700 full-time employees at Laurentian, he said.

“Maybe they want to have only managers left and no one under them,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Asked if the relationship between Laurentian and LUFA is “tenuous,” as the court documents contend, Cachon acknowledges there are grievances to be worked out, but it’s necessary to protect their members.

About 20 of them relate to a mistake related to professors’ starting salary calculations, while other grievances are about the disparity between male and female professors’ salaries.

“The relationships have been tense in terms of applications of collective agreements,” Cachon said. 

“The past few years in particular we’ve had administrators who chose to ignore the law. If an employer ignores the law, as a union you have a legal obligation to defend your members.” 

Cachon said the association fears their collective agreement will now be “totally denied” as the university attempts to lay off staff and achieve a new deal with faculty through its creditors’ protection filing with the courts.

Laurentian said it plans to seek the appointment of a mediator to assist the university and LUFA to come to an agreement by April 30.

On the FAQ section of its website dedicated to the CCAA restructuring, the university said Laurentian and LUFA will need to reach a contract resolution by April 30 due to the terms of the Debtor In Possession (DIP) bridge financing made available to the university.

“It’s a totally new situation,” Cachon said. “There is a mediator that was appointed last Friday. I and my colleagues have no idea whether this is feasible or not.

“We’re really in the dark. First of all, this CCAA legislation has never been applied to a public institution, and it has never been applied to a university.

“It’s our position as LUFA that it does not apply, that it’s the wrong move, that basically we should use what we have, which is the collective agreement, which has a very clear clause on financial exigency, and this is how we should proceed.”

Cachon added that if the “collective agreement is totally denied during this period of three months, then it means that we’re in a total vacuum in terms of law.

“What I’m told is when they used this with Air Canada, this is what happened — they just suspended the collective agreement. That’s what they’re asking.”

Cachon said more will be known Wednesday when Laurentian heads to court for the CCAA filing.