The Klein Cuts and the MRFA: A (Mostly) Oral History

Academics in Alberta are confronted with abudget blitzing government intent on linking funding with courses that produce instantly employable graduates.”  No, not 2021, but 1993.  Faced with massive cuts to their sector and their institution, how did Mount Royal faculty respond?

By Kirk Niergarth, featuring the recollections of Greg Flanagan, Michael Fellows, and Kelly Hewson.

In the autumn of 1993, the Progressive Conservative government under the leadership of Ralph Klein announced sweeping cuts to the public sector, including a 21 per cent cut to Post-Secondary Education over three years.1

Michael Fellows: Leading up to the pay cut that we took was the roller coaster of resource revenues.  We’ve had various premieres who have tried to tempt us away from our cocaine-like addiction to the oil and gas business. These cuts came after one of the worst collapses we ever had in oil and gas royalties [and] the province was in a bad deficit position.  And because public sector workers are unionized, because they have more job security and more stable income, they are always a prime target.  The government looked to cutting the wages of nurses, doctors, public sector workers generally, and of course ‘Fat Cat’ professors.

Anticipating where cuts would fall was taking a toll on faculty morale, MRFA President Greg Flanagan told a Herald reporter in November.  “This is destroying our people here,” Flanagan said. “They don’t know what’s going to come and they’re already being asked to do stuff that’s virtually impossible.”[2] 

Kelly Hewson had only started her career at Mount Royal the previous year.

Kelly Hewson: I had finally, after several years of being a roving contingent academic, landed a tenure-track job. Only to be walking down the hall and passing Dean Robson who said to me, “Given that you were the last one hired, you would be the first one to go.”  I think I went into the washroom in T-wing and just started, you know, to try to catch my breath.

Arguing against cuts in the Herald, columnist Don Braid pointed out that Mount Royal “probably delivers more schooling for less public money than any other college in Canada.”  The province’s target funding for colleges and universities was 77 per cent of their operating budgets, but Mount Royal was only receiving 55 per cent.[3]  Nevertheless, when the distribution of cuts were announced in January 1994, Mount Royal would take the full 21 per cent hit, with 11 per cent in the first year. 

The college faced an $8.2 million shortfall for 1994/1995.[4] On 24 January, the Board announced nine program cancellations, cut seven faculty and two staff positions, and hiked tuition by 8%.[5]  A further $5 million dollars in savings were to be achieved by eliminating a further 120 positions through attrition and early retirement over a three-year period.[6]   To avoid more job losses and program closures, the Board sought salary concessions from faculty and staff.

Greg Flanagan: The government at the time wanted the whole public service to take a 5 per cent cut. They thought it was token compared to the 20 per cent cuts administered at ministry level. 

The universities and colleges needed a cut in their faculty cost.  The administration didn’t have to threaten or anything. There was the obvious case that programs would be cut, jobs would be cut if we didn’t take a cut because there wasn’t the money there to be had.

So there was an expectation that people were going to do this. We went into it with the sense that we would help the college adjust to these cuts, but we wanted the best kind of outcome we could get.

Michael Fellows: We were obviously headed for a cut that would be imposed if we didn’t negotiate one.  My recollections are that the best person we had to negotiate those cuts was Greg Flanagan with tremendous experience in negotiating the contract. I don’t believe he was on the negotiating team at the time. And so there was suspicion that we had a member who was sidecar bargaining, who was going to sell out the faculty.   It is a testament to other people who were on the communications team who got faculty calmed down [and convinced] that this was not someone trying to buy himself favor at the expense of the collective group.

Greg Flanagan:  The faculty association, unanimously actually, gave me a mandate to negotiate directly with the president. It was successful in that we arrived at a contract. We did take the 5 per cent reduction in the current salary grid but we got a guarantee that there would be no programs or jobs cut because of the budget cuts and we also had a clause that took us back to the original salary at the termination of that three-year agreement. And to my knowledge, we were the only institution in the province that had that clause.

Michael Fellows: In our case, Greg managed to negotiate a cut by pointing out to the board that instructors had not been overpaid.  That we were willing to take a cut was in effect a one-time grant to our employer to give them a three-year window to get their fiscal house in order.  We were not the cause of the problem.

Kelly Hewson: I remember this was a real issue among faculty.  Because if you take that rollback, it affects your pension forever.  It’s the pain that keeps on giving.  And I’m not even sure if we’ve ever recovered from that.

Greg Flanagan:  Personally, I would not have supported any cuts, but I was playing my role as president to come back with a choice for faculty and pretty much a reality of what we had to deal with. Faculty were extremely receptive, extremely supportive. There were a few who were really, really angry and vocal about it in meetings, but that’s to be expected.

Kelly Hewson: There was the idea that ‘No, you’re not going to take it from me. Let’s not let them have it. Let’s resist.’  But then the pragmatic voices say, well, we either give it or it’s going to be foisted upon us.

Michael Fellows: Well, you know very well that academics are not just cats but rabid cats. I had very close friends who were quite emotional, grassroots Marxists who saw this as a power struggle with the elite [who aimed] to damage the chances of future generations getting an education. They saw this as class warfare from the government.  You had other people who had had successful careers in the private sector who saw belonging to a faculty association as tantamount to holding a gun to their head and telling them to join the communist party.  They were furious that this organization that they reluctantly had to support had bargained a pay cut for them.  So, you’re not looking at a homogenous group.

On 11 February, Mount Royal employees became the first in the province’s post-secondary sector to agree to a salary rollback.  Faculty voted 143 (60%) to 97 (40%) to accept a 3 year agreement with a 3% cut in the first year and an additional 2%  for the period from 1995 until 1 July 1997 when salaries would return to their 1994 level.  The staff association voted to accept a similar contract and the total savings to the institution over the three years would amount to $1.9 million.  To the Herald Flanagan said, “We feel we’ve been savaged by the government and they know the implications to the institution.”[7]

Kelly Hewson:  My concern was I was going to lose a job. It wasn’t so much future earnings, but of course, once I didn’t get axed, then it was like, Oh man, this is going to keep hurting in perpetuity.

Greg Flanagan:  I know that the president of the college, Tom Wood, was very relieved. He was on pins and needles to see what we might do. It was tense at times. 

It was a pretty significant cut with long term consequences.  I think the most significant thing was the effect on morale.  You know, you lose 5 per cent — you might be paying half that in tax anyway — but  it demoralized people.  The government at that time wasn’t just saying ‘we need cut from you.’ They were basically saying that public servants of all kinds are just a drag on the economy.

People don’t go into public service just for money. They certainly don’t go into education [for money].  In my years, I can only remember how dedicated everyone was to their job.  Morale is huge to an educational institution. People have to be strongly engaged in what they do. You just need to go on into a classroom when somebody doesn’t like what they’re doing and you see it right away.  It’s an intangible but you can’t take it back to the administration and the government and say, look at these losses. All they see is the classroom’s got somebody in it; the students are paying their tuition; life goes on. But, it’s a kind of job [where] enthusiasm for the job counts so much. And when you come in and diminish people then that’s very demoralizing.

Of course, 1993 was the start of a huge upswing in the economy and there was absolutely no need for the cuts in the public sector.  So certainly with hindsight, it was nothing but an insult.

Kelly Hewson: There is an anti-intellectual attitude that for the longest time this province has been governed by.  So, yes, it was insulting.

In spite of the accepted salary rollbacks, the Klein government was hardly encouraging about its ongoing support of the post-secondary sector.  In June, the Herald reported that though academics already felt they were “under attack by a budget blitzing government intent on linking funding with courses that produce instantly employable graduates,” the Education Minister Jack Ady was reviewing the “touchy topic of tenure.”  Ady hoped to give institutions “greater flexibility in staffing during difficult economic times.” He was not entirely convinced that “tenure is necessary for academic freedom.”[8]

Mount Royal faculty and students continued to speak out in the press about the consequences of the budget cuts. MRC Student Association President, Sandeep Dhir, pointed to the impacts of the present and future tuition increases on students, noting that 300 Mount Royal students were relying on food banks on a weekly basis.[9]  Flanagan pointed to the intellectual costs to institutions of early retirements:  “We’ve lost the generation that in the last three decades has created the kind of excellent system we had.”[10]

Michael Fellows: I was then on the bargaining team that tried to repair the damage. One of the great benefits that Mount Royal had compared to anyone else in the province is Greg managing to negotiate that we had given them a holiday, but the grid would snap back into place.  I can’t emphasize enough the difference that that made.

Greg Flanagan: And to my memory, they were successful in actually getting a reasonable increase the year after the cuts were over. So that clause was very helpful

Michael Fellows: The board made titular squealing.  Naturally they had to draw attention to the fact that none of the other colleges or universities had an automatic kickback.  Why should they honor this?  They had negotiated in good faith, but circumstances had changed. Our position was you’re right. You negotiated in good faith. So did we.  But we took those cuts, we gave you time and you’ve emerged in good shape. 

They made clear to us that their pockets were empty. They had no money. They had nothing to give. But they certainly made almost no attempt to not honor the clause returning us to the nominal income specified in the previous contract.

Kelly Hewson: What I also recognized was, am I ever in a place where there is a faculty association that knows how to fight and organize? I mean, MRFA was amazing.

Michael Fellows:  We made clear to them that we have lost ground from 1978 to 1993 with no income restoration over that entire period.  As of 1996 when we started that round of negotiations for the 1997 contract, we had a cumulative loss of  somewhere around 16 per cent of our purchasing power since 1972.  A whole generation of people who started at Mount Royal and stayed through their careers would retire with less purchasing power than someone who had been ready to retire 25 years before.  It’s a blueprint for destroying morale and destroying hearts and minds.

Now, twenty-eight years after the Klein cuts, the Alberta post-secondary sector is being slashed again.  Mount Royal Faculty who remember those years might experience déjà vu as they are asked to consider wage-cuts to solve a budget crisis in spite of the fact that their salaries have lost ground against inflation over the course of the last decade. 

Greg Flanagan: You know, it’s the same every year.  Same every year in my career from good economies to bad economies.  I was always being told there’s no money and we’re always having to fight for basically an inflation covering increase.

So it’s kind of sad to see. Really, it’s a provincial mismanagement of the whole system and we pay for it in the institutions.  We go over and over the same ground that, quite frankly, hasn’t changed 50 years. 

Kelly Hewson:   Our expertise is not recognized and acknowledged as important. It’s just a constant PR exercise to try to make people in this province recognize the importance and the value of advanced education. I think you have to just keep fighting the good fight.

Thanks to Michael Fellows, Greg Flanagan, Kelly Hewson, Manuel Mertin and Cliff Werier for making the time to share their recollections of the Klein-era. 

[1] Ron Collins, “College employees voting on salary rollback,”Calgary Herald, 2 February 1994, B3.

[2] Ron Collins, “College cuts courses,” Calgary Herald, 25 January 1994, B1.

[3] Ron Collins, “Wage rollback will ease crisis,” Calgary Herald, 3 February 1994, B5.

[4] Ron Collins, “College workers accept wage cut,” Calgary Herald, 12 February 1994, B1.

[5]Lisa Dempster, “Talks get started with grim warning,”  Calgary Herald, 20 November 1993, B1.

[6] Don Braid “MRC is punished for being inventive,” Calgary Herald, 25 November 1993, B1.

[7] Ron Collins, “College workers accept wage cut,” Calgary Herald, 12 February 1994, B1.

[8] Lisa Dempster, “Halls of Learning,”  Calgary Herald, 30 June 1994, A5.

[9] Sandeep Dhir, “Education not first priority,” Calgary Herald, 8 February 1994, A6.

[10] Lisa Dempster, “Halls of Learning,”  Calgary Herald, 30 June 1994, A5.