Latest UMSU press release misses the point

Classes at the U of M were interrupted for three weeks in 2016 after negotiations between the university and faculty broke down. UMSU's recent statement seeking assurances if an agreement is not reached by Sept. 19 misses the point.

One would think that the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) had finally woken up from its apathetic slumber, what with the recent executive press release condemning a lack of haste in ongoing labour negotiations between the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA)  and university administration.

One would think wrong.

Alas, UMSU remains fast asleep when it comes to the substantive issues it claims to speak to. This is most apparent in the empty grandstanding found in the union’s statement on U of M labour negotiations – an issue the organization could hardly articulate a position on during a three-week faculty strike in the fall of 2016.

Last year, the union representing 1,200 professors, researchers, and librarians picketed for 21 days in November after months of negotiations failed to reach an agreement. While all classes were eventually completed in full, the disruption affected the remaining academic schedule and left students in uncertainty while negotiations unfolded.

Prior to the strike, UMFA rejected a four-year proposal that included average salary increases of more than 17 per cent, saying the offer did not go far enough to address concerns surrounding governance issues and performance indicators, while failing to give faculty a stronger voice in guiding university policy.

After the proposal was rejected, it was revealed that the province mandated that the university negotiate a wage freeze, effectively taking salaries off the bargaining table. The union filed a complaint to the Manitoba Labour Board as a result, claiming the university bargained in bad faith by striking salaries from negotiations. The case was heard in the spring. A decision has not yet been released.

The strike was ultimately settled after the university and its faculty agreed to a one-year deal that took steps toward addressing the union’s concerns concerning governance and performance indicators, but held salaries stagnant. That agreement expired at the end of March.

So, what is at stake in the latest round of negotiations between UMFA and the administration? UMSU was trivially correct on one thing: a lot.

But UMSU’s call for action – a demand to issue students full refunds if the coming academic term is interrupted by further labour action – spawned the uncertainty it claims to address by standing woefully ignorant of the surrounding circumstances. To speak out on a topic without addressing context is as naïve as it is unbecoming, especially for an entrenched organization geared toward student advocacy.

Firstly, the claims UMSU made in its release. The union declared the lack of ongoing negotiation between UMFA and the administration intolerable for students. UMSU further asserted that the uncertainty concerning last year’s academic schedule following the strike was bad for students.

Curiously missing is the important fact that the provincial government is currently facing a lawsuit filed by the various public sector unions across Manitoba – including UMFA  – which alleges the government’s controversial plan to freeze public sector salaries violates constitutionally enshrined collective bargaining rights.

With proper attention paid, it becomes clear the release misses so many marks that the bullseye, functionally, never existed.

Regardless of whether the government is found legally at fault, its declaration of intent to freeze wages itself has effectively frozen collective bargaining. Management has taken the cue, so to speak.

To be frank, the business of the provincial government has amounted to pulling an emergency brake for labour negotiations. If management refuses to consider, or is mandated to freeze, salaries, then further collective bargaining should await the court’s decision on the legality of the government’s actions. Otherwise, a major issue for labour is moot before negotiations even open.

To think labour should find this acceptable and proceed regardless is fantastical thinking of the most dangerous kind. UMFA’s members remain among the lowest paid groups of professors in the country. Acquiescing to the government’s wishes would mean further delegating the University of Manitoba to the back benches of national and international scholarship. Even opponents of last year’s strike – of the financially friendly type – can see how the current situation at the U of M is bad for competitiveness.

The current climate at the U of M calls for organizing and union solidarity, not scoring empty political points. If our student union really cared about students’ interests, then it would be condemning a privatization-happy provincial government that would see the university sold off to the highest bidder. If our student union really cared about students’ interests, then it would be condemning an administration that continually cuts at the academic underpinnings of our university while pumping millions into marketing campaigns and capital projects.

If our student union really cared about students’ interests, it would not issue a press release that paints a false picture by neglecting crucial, relevant facts regarding the current situation at the U of M.

UMFA and the university administration are not similarly situated in current collective bargaining, nor do both parties have the same capacity for massively impacting the students. It is the administration which holds all the cards, but UMSU has presented an erroneous false equivalency in its depiction of events.

Students’ interests will only begin to be realized if the university population – students, faculty, instructors, service workers – band together to face the harsh light of our governance structure’s increasingly brazen neoliberalism.

Student and faculty unions should be working together, not against each other. UMSU’s press release contributes only to the latter.