University of Manitoba Faculty Association’s bargaining unit to hold strike vote

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association says members of its bargaining unit will start voting on whether to strike this week. File / University of Manitoba

The union representing faculty at the University of Manitoba is moving one step closer to a strike at the province’s largest post-secondary institution.

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) says members of its bargaining unit will start voting this week on whether or not to take a job action after it says negotiations with the school over a wage re-opener clause in their latest contract have stalled.

Michael Shaw, UMFA president, says discussions have been ongoing since August and stem from a deal made after the Manitoba Labour Board ruled the university committed an unfair labour practice during bargaining with the faculty association in the fall of 2016.

“We have a clause in our contract right now that says this is the year that if that language has now been declared unconstitutional the university is supposed to address the losses that we suffered,” Shaw said this week, adding the union has offered to go to binding arbitration, but the school has so far refused.

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“We don’t know what else to do — in a collective bargaining situation, if your employer doesn’t move at all and doesn’t come to the table … really you run out of options.”

The faculty association is the certified bargaining agent for 1,240 full-time professors, librarians, lecturers and instructors at the University of Manitoba.

The association filed a complaint at the height of a three-week strike in November 2016, stating the university had failed to disclose that the new Progressive Conservative government had asked the university to freeze faculty salaries.

The university and faculty association ultimately ratified a four-year collective agreement, which included no wage increase in the first year, followed by 0.75 per cent and one per cent raises in the second and third years.

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While the university has declined an interview request from Global News, a spokesperson said both sides had agreed in 2016 to renegotiate the agreement’s year-four salary in the fourth year.

But “COVID, of course, has created a context that we couldn’t have envisioned a few years ago” the spokesperson added.

Shaw said the ongoing pandemic — which has forced many of the school’s classes to move online — shouldn’t play a role in the salary negotiations.

“That was a fair argument maybe in August, but we know now that enrollment is up, tuition revenue is up, the university is in as healthy a financial position as it has ever been,” he said.

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“The university could remove the stress of the students with the snap of the president’s finger.”

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Kristen Smith, vice-president of advocacy with the University of Manitoba Students’ Union, says the possibility of a strike is bringing added anxiety to students already facing the stresses of remote learning during COVID-19.

She said the student’s union hopes to help prevent a strike, if it can, but UMSU hasn’t picked a side in the fight and won’t until its board of directors takes a vote on the matter Monday.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to create some pressure and demonstrate what the human impact will be on students should something like this go forward,” she said.

“Job action would be pretty catastrophic for students during a pandemic.”

The strike vote for members of UMFA’s bargaining unit will be held electronically over three days starting Friday.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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