As picket lines continue to greet those still attending classes or working at the University of Manitoba, politicians continue to debate the role the provincial government played in events leading up to the faculty strike.
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) began striking the morning of Nov. 1 after mediation between the university and the faculty broke off the evening of Oct. 30.
On Oct. 28, following the first day of mediation discussions between the two sides, university president David Barnard and UMFA president Mark Hudson issued a joint release criticizing an “11th hour” provincial government mandate directing the university to extend the faculty’s current contract an additional year without any salary increases, effectively mandating a wage freeze.
The Progressive Conservative government denied directly interfering in the negotiations, instead saying they had merely outlined their goals of financial accountability across the public sector to the university’s administration.
“We’ve communicated to the negotiators, as we must, as is our right and obligation, where we feel the negotiation needs to go but it’s in their hands,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told reporters Nov. 1.
“I don’t bargain in public, so I won’t be outlining in detail anything other than I have said previously, that we believe that it’s really important to keep our word to Manitobans and Manitobans did ask us to help fix the finances of the province,” he said.
During question period that same day, interim NDP opposition leader Flor Marcelino repeatedly accused the government of interfering in the U of M’s collective bargaining process and undermining negotiations.
“It was [the premier’s] choice to offend negotiations when offers were already on the table,” she said.
Fort Rouge MLA and NDP education critic Wab Kinew also accused the government of interfering in the bargaining process.
“I hope the government stops interfering politically with the process because it’s only muddying the waters,” Kinew told reporters following question period Tuesday.
“You had [the] faculty association and administration really talking about the issues around quality of education and then all of a sudden the premier comes in with the curveball around the wage freeze and then totally derails the collective bargaining process,” he said.
The next day, at the Canadian Federation of Students’ Day of Action protest for tuition free post-secondary education, Hudson – who participated in the rally – told the Manitoban that he also doesn’t buy the government’s denial of intruding.
“Let me be clear, the University of Manitoba is our employer, we bargain with them. Did the province interfere in the bargaining process? Absolutely,” he said. “In my view, they’re a shadow at the bargaining table.”
Wednesday’s question period proved no less tense, even as the premier was absent for a funeral, as the NDP directed its offensive instead at the finance and education ministers, again accusing them of interfering in negotiations.
Those accusations were amplified given that the same day, U of M vice-president external John Kearsey said the province had begun discussions around the zero per cent wage hike mandate as early as Oct. 6.
On Thursday, following another heated question period, Pallister answered questions surrounding the timing in which the government mandated the zero per cent wage hike directive.
The premier told reporters that Barnard’s joint statement with Hudson was “factually inaccurate” where the university’s president said the mandate was given just days before mediation began.
“I think the university spokespeople have already said that the communication made last week was a misrepresentation of the facts,” he said, referring to Kearsey’s statement.
Pallister went on to emphasize his belief that the government’s mandate was an attempt to “assist in the negotiations.”
“The assertion that’s been made is that somehow giving a clearer mandate for negotiations wasn’t helpful when, in fact, I believe it will be helpful,” Pallister explained. “We’ll know soon enough.”
On Friday, following an information picket hosted by UMFA on the steps of the U of M administration building, Hudson again refused to accept the government’s line that issuing the wage freeze directive was an attempt to aid in the negotiating process.
“The province has no business intervening in this way,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that dropping something so late and something so fundamental into the bargaining process can only help to derail.”