The Manitoba Labour Board has ruled that the University of Manitoba engaged in unfair labour practice at the direction of the provincial government during the 2016 faculty strike.
The university administration has been fined and directed to pay compensation to all members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, which could total $2.4 million if UMFA has its way, says a letter from the faculty union.
The labour board didn't set the amount of compensation in its decision, which was officially announced Wednesday, instead ordering UMFA and the administration to negotiate.
"The law allows a maximum fine of $2,000 per member, and we will push for that amount in full," states a letter from UMFA's communications team to its 1,200 faculty association members, which was forwarded to CBC News.
U of M considering appeal
The university released a brief statement on its website, saying it is disappointed with the ruling.
"The university respectfully disagrees with this finding … [and] is currently considering its options, including potentially applying for a reconsideration of the Labour Board decision."
UMFA president Janet Morrill said that is disheartening news.
"It's very difficult to move forward if the university believes it did nothing wrong. What's to stop them from doing the same thing again?"
The faculty association filed an unfair labour practice complaint shortly after the 21-day strike ended in November 2016. It alleged the university failed to disclose communications it had received from the provincial government, interfering in the bargaining process.
The union says the province encouraged the university to withdraw a salary offer — which it did — contrary to the university's obligations under the Labour Relations Act of Manitoba.
University ordered to take hard line
The university publicly announced in September 2016 that it had offered a four-year deal with general increases of one per cent the first year and two per cent in each of the next three years.
But just over two weeks later, the university began "numerous communications" with government officials, the labour board's decision says. An official advised the U of M that "it would not be good for the university's relations with the new government" to offer anything more than what had already been offered, a university official said.
At a later meeting, government officials took a harder line and "the university was clearly told" to pursue a wage freeze and that any failure to co-operate would "lead to some financial consequences," the labour board's written decision says.
The government's direction was an order, not a request, the decision says.
UMFA wasn't informed of any of those discussions, the labour board decision says, and various hints and cryptic comments only served to obscure rather than shed light on the government's mandate.
By withholding the information, the university prevented UMFA from understanding and responding to the challenges faced by the university, the board's decision says.
The faculty association eventually agreed to the one-year offer, which came with a zero per cent salary increase but a commitment by the university to improve several governance issues and not lay off any librarians or instructors before the start of 2019.
After the government's interference came to light, university administration repeatedly said they had done everything to dissuade the government from demanding a wage freeze.
The labour board disagreed, saying it "does not accept that the university ever seriously considered exercising its independence and defying the government."
In its statement posted Jan. 30 on the U of M website, the university says it believes it bargained in good faith and "the timing [of revealing the discussions with provincial officials] reflected an attempt to advocate with government for reasonable compensation for UMFA members."
UMFA president Morrill doesn't believe that, saying the university's actions robbed the union of its right to collectively bargain "a long overdue wage increase."
"This illegal behaviour was a strong contributor to a divisive, harmful, costly and unnecessary three-week-long strike, causing distress for students, parents and employees," she said at a news conference Wednesday morning.
"We came to the table prepared to work out a fair deal that focused on providing the best possible education to University of Manitoba students. Instead of bargaining fairly with us, the university followed the [Premier Brian] Pallister government's orders and forced faculty out on the picket lines, disrupted student schedules and postponed exams."
University not blamed for strike
While UMFA blames the university for the strike, the labour board does not.
"The board is not satisfied that the conduct of the university, which we have concluded constitutes an unfair labour practice, caused the strike," the written decision states.
The university's conduct, however, "was tantamount to misrepresentation," the decision says.
The labour board ruling sends a message to the U of M "that we must be treated with fairness and respect and in accordance with the law," Morrill said. "We will continue to protest the government's infringements on collective bargaining rights."
Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, joined Morrill at the news conference and called the ruling "a win for every Manitoban."
"These are crucial services that we all depend on, and we will not stand for government interference when it comes to protecting them," he said.
The province, though, denies any such interference.
"The Labour Board has ruled that the strike occurred due to an impasse over governance and related issues, and had nothing to do with the government bargaining mandate," provincial Finance Minister Cameron Friesen wrote in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon.
"In fact, government is not a party before the Labour Board and the board has made no orders against government in its ruling," Friesen said.
"We have given a clear mandate so there can be negotiations in good faith. Manitobans can be assured that the bargaining process is alive and well."
Lawsuit against province
The faculty association's battle over collective agreements isn't done yet.
UMFA is part of a group of public sector unions taking the province to court over the Public Services Sustainability Act, which imposes a two-year wage freeze following the conclusion of collective agreements with provincial employees, followed by a 0.75 per cent increase in the third year and a one per cent increase in the fourth year. The act has been passed in the legislature but it hasn't been proclaimed into law yet.
The unions call their effort against it the Partnership to Defend Public Services.
"While the Pallister government continues to bully and scheme their way to gutting our public services, our promise to Manitobans is that we will continue to hold them accountable," Rebeck said.
Pallister has said the restraint is needed as part of his plan to balance the budget by 2024 after almost a decade of consecutive deficits started by the former NDP government.
But the unions say the Progressive Conservative government is eyeing big cuts to the civil service without allowing labour leaders to provide input on how else to improve the province's financial situation.
They are seeking a court injunction against the Public Services Sustainability Act.
The hearings begin on May 29.