Manitoba government appeals order to compensate U of M union members $19.3M

The Manitoba government is appealing a court ruling that orders it to pay the University of Manitoba Faculty Association $19.3 million for covert interference with collective bargaining talks in 2016.

UMFA disheartened government has chosen to 'prolong the era of government interference'

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joan McKelvey ruled in February that the Manitoba government interfered in negotiations between the U of M and UMFA, violating the union's charter rights. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The Manitoba government is appealing the $19.3-million in damages it was ordered to pay the University of Manitoba Faculty Association for covertly interfering in collective bargaining talks in 2016.

The province argues in a submission to the Manitoba Court of Appeal that Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joan McKelvey made legal errors in awarding damages based on the assumption there would have been a four-year collective agreement and in awarding damages for the costs and wage losses of the 2016 strike.

McKelvey ruled in February that the province interfered in negotiations between the university and the faculty association and violated the union's charter right to meaningful collective bargaining, fuelling a 21-day strike by UMFA members.

She ordered the province to pay $19.3-million in damages for lost income due to both the lower wages in the contract and the strike.

The province filed its appeal of that order on Wednesday.

A spokesperson from the province told CBC News in an email that the government is taking the advice of its legal counsel in filing the appeal.

"The unprecedented constitutional issues and remedy warrant further consideration," the email said.

Out of respect for the integrity of the court's processes, no further comments will be made, the spokesperson said.

The union said it was disappointed by the appeal.

"We are disheartened that the government has chosen to appeal this decision and prolong the era of government interference in collective bargaining and in the University of Manitoba," union president Orvie Dingwall said in a news release.

At one point in 2016, it had appeared a nine-month bargaining process between the university and the faculty association was ending after the university offered a four-year contract that would have resulted in an overall increase of 17.5 per cent in salaries over that period.

However, the university pulled the offer after receiving a secretive provincial directive.

The 2016 strike by faculty ended when union members reluctantly agreed to a one-year wage freeze. (CBC)

The province, under then-premier Brian Pallister, had formed a public sector compensation committee, made up of cabinet ministers and others. The committee crafted a one-year zero-per-cent wage-freeze policy and notified the U of M's chief negotiator it was not negotiable, court documents say.

The committee told the U of M not to disclose the provincial directive in talks with the union, and informed the university not complying would result in "financial repercussions," McKelvey wrote in her February decision.

The university went back to the faculty association with an altered proposal that included a one-year wage freeze.

That prompted the strike, which only ended when the union reluctantly agreed to the wage freeze three weeks later.

In its notice of appeal, the Government of Manitoba says McKelvey "made a legal error in awarding damages based on the assumption the parties would have reached a four-year collective agreement."

It also says the judge erred in awarding damages for wage losses and costs associated with the 2016 strike, which it says was a "voluntary exercise" of the faculty association's constitutional rights.

The province is asking the Court of Appeal "to substitute a just and appropriate remedy."

The government now has 45 days to file all of their arguments and evidence, after which time UMFA, which represents 1,265 full-time professors, instructors, and librarians, will file its response.

Only then will the court set hearing dates. 

Garth Smorang, a lawyer for the faculty association, said he expected hearings would begin late this year or early next year.

If the ruling is upheld, about $16 million of the $19.3 million plus interest is to go to staff for lost wages and nearly $3 million is earmarked to cover UMFA costs associated with the 2016 strike, the union said at the time of the February decision.

UMFA previously settled a similar claim against the university.

The union filed an unfair labour practice complaint shortly after the strike ended, saying the university failed to disclose the communications it had received from the provincial government — contrary to the university's obligations under the Labour Relations Act of Manitoba.

In January of 2018 the Manitoba Labour Board ruled the U of M engaged in unfair labour practice at the direction of the provincial government.

The university administration apologized in May 2018 and agreed to pay each UMFA member, and the union, $2,000 each in compensation.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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