Conciliator chosen in Brandon University strike talks

Brandon University and its faculty union have appointed a conciliator to work with them on contract talks, as a strike continues at the western Manitoba university.
Staff at Brandon University are on strike, leaving about 3,000 students shut out of classes. (CBC)

Brandon University and its faculty union have appointed a conciliator to work with them on contract talks, as a strike continues at the western Manitoba university.

The appointment was made as negotiations between the Brandon University Faculty Association (BUFA) and the administration resumed at 4 p.m. CT Wednesday, almost 12 hours after a marathon round of talks broke off at 4:30 a.m.

The association's members — about 240 professors, instructors, librarians and professional associates — hit the picket lines at 7:31 a.m., leaving about 3,000 students shut out of classes for the rest of this week.

Grant Mitchell, the chief negotiator for the university, told CBC News that it asked for a conciliator to help work out outstanding issues.

The major sticking points in negotiations have been wages, benefits and research issues. The association says professors need more time for research, which it argues would help the university gain public recognition.

Mitchell said it is unlikely the two sides will reach any agreement within the next day, but the process has begun.

"It's not good for anybody when there are strikes. On the other hand, avoiding a strike at any cost wouldn't be responsible," he said. "That's the challenge that the university has to juggle."

Union wants wage increases

Jim Forsythe, a professor at the university, said faculty wanted wage increases of four per cent for each of the next three years.

What the university wanted, with a pension provision, would have amounted to a wage reduction, he said.

"So essentially, in the first year, it was down two [per cent], second year down two, third year even. And taking into cost of living and inflation, I mean it's not even that I necessarily want to make more money, it's just a hard kick when you're making less," he said.

Some Brandon University staff are on the picket line in Winnipeg, where the university's psychiatric nursing course is taught. ((Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC))

Faculty association president Joe Dolecki said Brandon University has one of the lowest pay rates for professors in western Canada, and it has had trouble retaining good faculty.

"The advantages of our location have not been sufficient to keep the young faculty here," Dolecki said.

The strike has affected students not just in Brandon, but also some in Winnipeg.

Brandon University's psychiatric nursing course is taught out of Winnipeg at a building next to the U of W. About 300 students attend classes there and 14 faculty and staff are now walking the picket line along Portage Avenue.

"It's going to be hard," said Deandra Tousignant, who speaks for the Brandon Students Union.

"But one of the biggest things we continually tell students is to keep up with their class work as much as they can — continue reading, working through their course syllabuses — it's the best thing they can do right now."

Won't lose term, says president

A forum was held at noon on Wednesday to inform students about their options during the strike, Tousignant said.

"We've talked to the faculty association and they're completely supportive of students crossing the picket line, of course, to do their school work, go to the library, continue to keep up, as well as the students that are living on campus," she said.

University president Deborah Poff wants to reassure students they will not lose out on their education.

"In the last 30 years of Brandon's history with labour disputes with the faculty union, a student has never lost a semester here. They've always been able to finish their semester and finish their year," she said.

Poff said the university administration and the association will meet again at 4 p.m. on Wednesday to negotiate.

This is the second faculty strike at Manitoba's third largest university in just over three years.

The last collective agreement, which was signed following a 17-day strike in the fall of 2008, expired on March 31.