U of M strike starts with pickets up Tuesday morning
More than 1,200 faculty members seek new contract at Manitoba's biggest university
University of Manitoba professors are on strike and the course load of thousands of students is in upheaval.
"We know that this is a very stressful time for students, and there will be a lot of questions," said John Kearsey, vice-president of external relations for the U of M.
"We're going to put every effort into getting this work disruption over as quickly as possible, because we want our students back in the classroom."
Within minutes, tension was already visible as the driver of a pickup truck tried to push through a picket line.
"Not too surprising, I guess," said Mark Hudson, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA).
"People want to come and go as they normally would. We're just out here picketing in order to make sure that people understand the issues that are on the table."
Hudson said all of the picket captains and faculty members have been briefed on respectful picket-line behaviour.
"We want to make sure we have the chance to give some information leaflets to a line of cars, and we'll hold the cars as long as it takes to do that," he said.
"Obviously, we don't want to endanger anybody, we don't want to threaten complete gridlock, but we need people to understand that there are really some serious issues on the table. The integrity of this institution is at stake.
"We're just hoping that the public also respects our right to be here."
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Kearsey said officials are exploring all possible options to prevent a disruption to students. A complete and up-to-date list of courses, classroom scheduling and service changes can be found on the university's website.
"We have a diverse group of 30,000 students and many classes are taught by non-bargaining members. Those continue as usual," he said.
Among those non-bargaining members are teaching assistants and sessional instructors.
The two sides have been in discussions since March. The last contract expired March 31.
Negotiations broke down earlier this month, resulting in the faculty voting in favour of taking strike action. Initially, the strike date was set for Oct. 22, but a mediator was brought in and the strike date was extended to Tuesday.
The university and the faculty association have blamed each other for the current situation, with administration accusing the association of rejecting a number of offers.
Hudson said the main issues on the table centre around fair evaluations for UMFA members — ensuring tenure and promotion as well as performance evaluations are fair and accurate. Workload protection and job security issues for instructors and librarians are also key.
"We think we have some incredibly reasonable demands on the table," he said. "We're looking for basic workload protections for our members — members who have had their workloads increased year-in and year-out.
"They're kind of at a breaking point and concerned about quality of education they can deliver."
Kearsey admitted those are "not easy issues to address" but said administration is committed to having that conversation.
The faculty association is speaking with its legal team about the possibility of filing an unfair labour practice complaint after the university, at the last minute, withdrew a salary offer.
"That will go forward this week, if it goes forward," Hudson said. "We'll do what we have to in order to defend our bargaining priorities."
A provincially appointed conciliator is being brought in to try to break the impasse. Conciliation does not stop the strike from happening, but it means the two sides will be at the same table to try to work through the issues to reach a successful contract.
Conciliator Dennis Harrison will sit down with both sides Wednesday to try to reach an agreement, said Kearsey.
"The administration is highly committed to making sure that we continue these discussions at the table, not from the picket line," he said. "What we hope is that they'll stay at the table with us at conciliation and keep this discussion going, not walk out as they did [during] mediation on Sunday."
Hudson is also hopeful a deal can be struck, but until then pickets will remain up every weekday from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m.