'A chill has been cast': Government meddling in bargaining called alarming

A Canadian think tank says the Manitoba government's meddling in collective bargaining talks should be alarming to the public and unions.

'There seems to be this pattern of interference in collective bargaining emerging, and this is very worrisome'

University of Manitoba Faculty Association members walk the picket line on Tuesday. (Bert Savard/CBC)

A Canadian think tank says the Manitoba government's meddling in collective bargaining talks should be alarming to the public and unions.

"There seems to be this pattern of interference in collective bargaining emerging, and this is very worrisome for the labour community," said Lynne Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think tank that, although non-partisan, has been described as left-leaning.

"We've had almost 20 years of relative labour peace in this province, and it seems now that a chill has been cast and there's definitely a new tone."

The Progressive Conservative government elected in April campaigned on getting provincial spending under control, blaming the previous NDP administration for Manitoba's deepening deficit.

But Fernandez said numbers given out by Manitoba's finance minister are never put in the context of the size of Manitoba's economy. You have to look at how much of the government's income must be used to serve the debt, she said.

Lynn Fernandez suggests all public sector unions be alarmed by the provincial government's involvement in negotiations between the University of Manitoba and its faculty. (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

In 2015-16, just 5.7 per cent of the government's income was spent on paying off the debt, which is not overwhelming, she said.

"Paying for debt only costs us really $1 out of every $20," Fernandez said.

Nevertheless, the province is using that to interfere in bargaining between public sector employers and their staff, she said.

She referred specifically to the joint statement released last week by University of Manitoba Faculty Association president Mark Hudson and U of M president David Barnard.

It was released last Friday as the two sides engaged in bargaining discussions, which eventually failed, leading to the beginning of strike action on Tuesday.

Both sides took exception to the province's request that existing contracts be extended an additional year with a zero per cent wage increase.

"The University of Manitoba is indeed challenged by these circumstances coming at the end of what has been a difficult but advancing series of discussions since March 2016," Barnard's statement said.

Hudson took a harder stance, calling it "illegitimate government interference in a constitutionally protected process of collective bargaining."

"For the employer and the staff — the professors — to issue a joint statement such as this, I find that, in my knowledge, to be unprecedented," Fernandez said.

Manitobans should be concerned the university "is being told how to run its affairs," she said, noting the university is the largest employer in the province, outside of the government itself.

"It's an institution with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars and an army of administrators that is perfectly capable of negotiating a collective agreement," Fernandez said.

She noted another example from August, when youth crisis workers with Macdonald Youth Services went on strike. Although the employer was "ready, willing and able" to offer an increase in salary to its employees, the province told them they couldn't do it, she said.

The Pallister government blamed the previous NDP government for making fiscally unsustainable promises.

All public sector unions should see this trend as "alarming" if their collective bargaining agreements are coming up for renewal, Fernandez said.