Union calls for 'emergency meeting' after U of M calls out government on 'illegitimate interference'

The province's largest union is demanding an emergency meeting with Premier Brian Pallister.

Province says it has a mandate to address 'serious fiscal challenges'

University of Manitoba president David Barnard and U of M Faculty Association president Mark Hudson say the province asked the school to extend existing contracts an extra year at zero per cent amid collective bargaining between the two parties. (Google Street View)

The province's largest union is demanding an emergency meeting with Premier Brian Pallister.

It comes after the University of Manitoba and its faculty association say the Tory government has "illegitimately interfered" in the collective bargaining process currently underway between the U of M and the University of Manitoba Faculty Association. The two parties are in mediation. 

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union is making the demand in view of the public spat that is developing between the province and the U of M. 

In a joint statement released Friday afternoon, the U of M's president David Barnard and UMFA president Mark Hudson said the province asked the university, along with other public bodies, to extend contracts an extra year at zero per cent.

The statement was sent to all members of the university community. 

UMFA executive director Greg Flemming confirmed the contents of the statement, but said the two organizations will not comment further because of the ongoing mediation.

'Illegitimate government interference'

"We now find ourselves in the unusual circumstance of having a newly articulated provincial mandate regarding public sector compensation levels that will have a profound impact on the final compensation levels that we will be able to negotiate, despite having already made what we believe to be a fair and reasonable offer on September 13, 2016," Barnard states in the letter.

"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."

In his statement, Hudson condemns the government's move as illegal.

"This 11th hour action represents illegitimate government interference in a constitutionally-protected process of collective bargaining," he wrote.

"The Province has unnecessarily endangered a complex negotiation through this misguided interference, and its action has jeopardized the educational goals of every UM student."

Hudson said the association is "exploring legal options," and pledged to continue negotiating on behalf of its members.

Both parties committed to continue discussions.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said the PC government has a responsibility to fix Manitoba's finances. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'Serious fiscal challenges': province 

In response, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen released a statement saying the Progressive Conservative government is not the employer and is not at the bargaining table.

But he said the government has a responsibility to address the "serious fiscal challenges" it has inherited.

"Our government was given a clear mandate by Manitobans to fix the province's finances, to secure and protect the services we all depend upon," Friesen said.

"While we are not going to comment on these negotiations, we will continue to urge all public stakeholders to work cooperatively within this very challenging environment."

'Unilateral wage freeze': MGEU

Late Friday afternoon, the MGEU put out a news release calling for an "emergency meeting" with Pallister, describing the government move as a "unilateral wage freeze."

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky has been asking for a meeting with the premier since the government took power in April. She said the move took her by surprise.

"To put it simply, we were absolutely blindsided by it. We were not expecting this one," she said.

"There's been no communication at all."

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the MGEU, said the union was "blindsided" by the U of M and UMFA release. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Gawronsky said without any provincial direction, it's difficult to know what the news means for future negotiations.

"We need some assurances from the province that bargaining will be fair and not dictated before it even begins," she said. "We would certainly appreciate if the premier would set up the meeting. Let's sit down and talk about this, because we have no idea what this means at this point for our members or any other Manitobans."

Throughout the Progressive Conservative's time in office, the NDP and union leaders have lobbed accusations of an attack on organized labour.

Gawronsky said the tone set so far was "definitely different," and this move in particular felt disrespectful.

​"It definitely does not feel respectful in any way. Let's have this meeting. I've been requesting a meeting with the premier for six months plus now, and let's just sit down," she said. 

"We just need the premier to sit down and talk to us."

Gawronsky said she hadn't heard back from the province about the meeting as of Friday evening.

NDP MLA James Allum called the PC move "shocking." (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Move casts a 'chill': critic

NDP finance critic James Allum said the concerns raised by the U of M and its faculty are a "shocking development."  He said the government is putting at risk the relationship between those two parties.

"That interference is not only jeopardizing that relationship and those negotiations, it's putting into question the school year and frankly it's intervening in the autonomy of the university itself," Allum said.

Allum served as the NDP Education Minister from 2013 to 2016.

He said it's standard practice for governments to set mandates, but argued getting involved in ongoing mediations isn't the same thing.

"What we're talking about is the establishing a mandate at the 11th hour of negotiations when they're currently at the table and in mediation. This can't be productive. It can only be counterproductive," he said.

He said it also sends a message to other public sector players whose contract are coming up for renewal. 

"I think that's sending a chill right across the province, quite frankly, that people can't negotiate the way that we have traditionally had in Manitoba." 

Allum said he didn't know how the government would respond if the two parties flout the limit and agree on an increase higher than zero. 

"We're going to be looking for just exactly how they're going to react and what they're going to do in the event that that happens. We can't predict the outcome of those negotiations," he said.

The University of Manitoba and the UMFA have been in discussions since March.