The Manitoba Labour Board heard arguments in May regarding an unfair labour practice complaint filed by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) stemming from the run-up to a three-week strike last fall.
UMFA, which represents over 1200 full-time professors, instructors and librarians, picketed for 21 days in November after negotiating for months with the U of M toward a collective agreement failed.
UMFA president Janet Morrill, who recently took over the union’s leadership, called the bargaining process leading up to a strike vote in October difficult.
“We were expecting to see accelerated bargaining but we weren’t getting many bargaining opportunities and it was frustrating,” she said.
“Instead of both parties feverishly working to strike a deal, the U of M administration didn’t seem to be moving very much.”
At the time of the strike, there was no legislation in place to freeze or cut public sector wages.
After the union rejected a four-year proposal that included an average 17.5 per cent increase because it failed to address issued critical to faculty – collegial governance, job security for instructors and librarians, workloads, and performance indicators – the university took salary negotiations off the table.
Julie Guard, an associate professor of history and coordinator of labour studies at the U of M, said the province forced the university’s hand.
“The U of M had already indicated that they would increase salaries and agree to a multi-year agreement,” she said.
“However, the province directed the employer to retract any money offer – that it was to offer zero in salary increases – and to insist on a one-year contract.”
The University of Manitoba bargaining team’s retraction of the salary offer, and withholding of information crucial to the bargaining process, constitute an unfair labour practice, according to the complaint filed by UMFA.
UMFA is seeking for various remedies, including compensation for the union and individual members for the cost of the strike, an apology from the U of M administration, and the reinstatement of a salary offer.
The complaint further argues that UMFA’s collective bargaining team was not made aware of the communication between the university and Gerry Irving, secretary of public-sector compensation for the Province of Manitoba.
“The U of M administration had a choice and they chose to side with the government, ” Morrill said.
“UMFA didn’t find out that the wages were off the table until mediation which was the weekend before the strike,” she added.
“The University of Manitoba,” she added, “is an autonomous institution and the province of manitoba shouldn’t dictate 100 per cent of university’s operations with 45 per cent of the funding contribution made through an annual operating grant.”
Morrill said the provincial government has the right to appoint members to the U of M board of governors and it is through those appointments it exercises oversight over the U of M.
Guard said the university, not the province, is the faculty’s employer and the government should not insert itself into negotiations. “The government has no direct role in collective bargaining between the employer and the union,” she said.
“In the case of some public sector workers, the province is the employer and, of course, in those cases the province does negotiate. But the U of M is independent from the province.”
Guard said that any interference in the collective bargaining process may constitute unfair bargaining.
“The government’s actions were a problem,” said Morrill, “as they were secretive and that it was targeted towards one union.”
John Danakas, the University of Manitoba’s executive director of public affairs, said the university was fair throughout the bargaining process.
“We await the conclusion. The university continues to stay confident in its position that it dealt fairly with the faculty association in the recent negotiations,” he said.
Whether the employer’s actions constitute bad faith bargaining is up to the Labour Board to decide. Both sides are now awaiting the its decision, which is expected to come down sometime this fall.
The two parties eventually agreed to a government-mandated one year wage freeze along with adjustments to non-salary issues such as promotions, workloads, and job security.
According to Morrill, “UMFA made progress on the bargaining priorities.”
Morrill explained that UMFA earned the right for all faculties to develop workload guidelines in conjunction with the deans of respective faculties, and the right for the faculties to approve tenure and promotion guidelines.
“We didn’t do as well as we had hoped for when it comes to job security, “ Morrill said.
“We did end up getting a letter outside of the collective agreement signed by members of the administration saying that there will be no lay offs [until] December 31, 2018.”
With regards to performance indicators, Morrill acknowledged that the union secured some language with the formation of a working group responsible for investigating more extensive language around performance indicators.
The most recent contract expired at the end of March. No dates have been set to begin negotiating toward a new agreement.
An UMSU press release published last week calls for “both parties to reach a settlement by midnight on Sept. 19, 2017, to guarantee students academic stability for this year before the class withdrawal and fee refund deadline on Sept. 20.”
UMSU is further asking the university to offer full refunds and academic amnesty to students for the upcoming academic year if classes are interrupted again.
Responding, Danakas said, “ the university certainly understands the concerns of the students and continues to try to begin bargaining as soon as possible as the strike was difficult on the entire university community especially the students.”
The provincial government has also indicated that it will seek a 15 per cent reduction in management positions at all post-secondary institutions.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that UMFA was seeking the reinstatement of a salary proposal that included an average more than 17 per cent increase, including adjustments to academic ranks that are currently below the national average. UMFA is in fact seeking the restoration of a salary offer that would include a one per cent increase for the 2016-17 year and a two per cent increase for the 2017-18 year. The Manitoban regrets the error.