A new semester at the University of Manitoba just wouldn’t feel right without a potential strike looming. Now, U of M students can rest assured they’re at home again. It is unsurprising the U of M finds itself at these critical junctures year after year, as the administration has continuously coughed up horrible yearly contracts to put off inevitable discontent among members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA). When students are pointing fingers, direct them at Michael Benarroch and the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) he finds himself beholden to.
The U of M has been pushing appropriate bargaining back since 2016, and the issues that precipitated that strike continue to influence UMFA’s patient deliberation with their squabbling peers at the administration building and the legislature.
In 2016, the U of M offered a meagre 1.5 per cent wage increase to professors after their collective bargaining agreement expired in March. By October, then-president David Barnard was reportedly “summoned” to discuss the negotiations with then-finance minister Cameron Friesen and then-premier Brian Pallister. The administration was instructed to withdraw any discussion of wage increases, effectively strong-arming the negotiations in bad faith. In late November, after significant strike action, UMFA made the decision to accept a one-year deal that included zero per cent wage increases in exchange for improvements to governance and labour relations.
In 2017, the Manitoba Labour Board took exception to the bargaining methods of the U of M and fined it $2.4 million. By complying with the government’s intervention while keeping the disputes a secret, the U of M leapt into a mediation process with little intention of offering the union a deal it desired.
Following the short-term deal, the PCs introduced Bill 28, the Public Services Sustainability Act (PSSA), which attempted to freeze the wages of roughly 120,000 public sector employees for two years. This legislation overlapped with the expired collective agreement that was jammed down UMFA’s throat. As a result, the university and UMFA agreed to reopen contract discussions after the PSSA expired.
However, in June 2020, the PSSA was deemed unconstitutional by the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench for violating charter rights and freedoms of association. “The [bill] has made it impossible for the plaintiffs to achieve their collective goals and limits the right to freedom of association,” Justice Joan McKelvey concluded.
After the legislation was voided, a new contract could be discussed. The U of M had ample time to offer a contract prior to the fall semester that year but refused to negotiate in good faith. UMFA demanded fair third-party arbitration, but the university refused to cooperate.
“They’ve just come forward and said they’re not willing or prepared to offer anything in this round of negotiations even though this round was specifically to take into account [the PSSA],” said UMFA member Michael Minor in an interview with the Manitoban last year.
The negotiations that did occur looked unpromising and students were sure a prolonged strike would occur. That year, the PCs intervened in the dispute again and demanded the U of M reject wage increases and cut its labour budget a further 2.5 per cent.
As a result, UMFA reconvened to authorize a strike vote. Of the 85 per cent of union members who showed up to vote, 80 per cent approved of strike action. However, in an attempt to avoid disruption in an already tumultuous year, UMFA moved to ratify a deal offered by the administration that included less-than-ideal terms. The deal passed with less than 55 per cent approval from UMFA members and the strike was called off.
The deal included a small stipend for the horrific working conditions during the pandemic — far from the 1.5 per cent wage increase, better salary grid and more support for professors caring for their children and family during lockdowns that UMFA was expecting.
This deal likely would not have been ratified if not for the unprecedented context of the pandemic. Professors acted in the best interests of the students and sacrificed important wages, benefits and conditions that made navigating the precarity of COVID-19 easier.
Now, with a strike vote being authorized to take place from Oct. 16 to 18, students should work with their peers to show support for the professors who made this sacrifice.
This year, professors are reporting mental exhaustion due to the U of M’s inability to retain employees. According to an internal poll conducted by UMFA, 14 per cent of faculty members are looking for work elsewhere. If these members manage to find work, they will likely leave. Wages have been frozen for five years, resulting in massive salary losses. In an interview with PressProgress, associate professor in the department of pharmacology and therapeutics Sachin Katyal noted his colleague found a position at an Ontario university that offered him $40,000 more at the same capacity. “There’s no reason to stick around here because there’s no hope for any growth,” he said.
Like Katyal’s colleague, almost two hundred other faculty are looking for employment elsewhere. Their departure would take with it crucial grant funding and jobs, and strain the university with a lengthy hiring process. So, the question remains — with millions of dollars hemorrhaging from the university’s budget due to labour flight, how much are they really saving in the long run? It is not hard to imagine that the university’s unsustainable labour relations strategy has cost them more than what they’d spend paying their professors.
With the flight of quality professors, who will the university attract when they leave? Likely nobody that will do a better job. By refusing to pay professors, the administration has taken action to reduce the quality of education that students are paying more than ever for. When professors strike, they are striking for students, too.
The university administration has folded to the PCs’ austerity agenda. This has little to do with the well-being of professors or students. If a strike should be called come Monday, students must support UMFA — not only because they sacrificed key negotiations for us last year, but also because it is in our best interest. As union activist and leader Harry Bridges once said, “The most important word in the language of the working class is ‘solidarity.’” When the time comes, lay down your pens and pick up the pickets.