Striking University of Manitoba staff set up outside premier's constituency office
Union member says Heather Stefanson hasn't responded to requests to connect
Striking instructors, professors and librarians from the University of Manitoba and students who support them planned to set up shop in the premier's constituency office on Monday until she agrees to hear their concerns or ends a government mandate they say is interfering with the bargaining process, but they were met by a locked door.
Members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, who went on strike on Tuesday, planned a sit-in at Premier Heather Stefanson's constituency office in Tuxedo to start at 9 a.m. Monday.
By 10 a.m. there were about 70 faculty and 20 students outside, but Stefanson's office remained closed, said Joe Curnow, an assistant professor in the faculty of education.
Faculty have been requesting meetings with her for months, sending emails and making phone calls, but have heard nothing back, Curnow said.
"She has said that she is willing to meet with constituents and with stakeholder groups and we can't think of anything more important than getting students back in the class," she said.
"We wish we didn't have to do it this way. People have been trying all of the other channels that are available to us and we've gotten no response from the PC government."
A small group planned to occupy the office itself, while a large group of students and staff were to gather just outside, Curnow said. Members planned to wait there until Stefanson agrees to meet, the union said.
Stefanson was sworn in as premier on the same day thousands of staff represented by UMFA walked off the job, citing government interference in the bargaining process as a cause.
UMFA, which represents more than 1,200 staff, and university administration have failed to agree on a new contract.
Among other complaints, the union says the province has failed to meet its demands for greater measures focused on faculty retention and recruitment.
The U of M has the second-lowest salaries for full-time teaching staff on average out of 15 Canadian research-based universities, Statistics Canada data says. The faculty association has said this continues to drive talented staff to better-paying institutions.
The union has said negotiations hit an impasse this fall when the administration suggested it was being forced to adhere to a wage freeze imposed by the provincial government.
"We want to be able to address the recruitment and retention crisis that's happening on campus and we can't do that if she [Stefanson] keeps enforcing an arbitrary mandate on the university that makes it impossible for president Benarroch to bargain with us freely and appropriately," Curnow said.
"It's driving a crisis where we are hemorrhaging faculty and it cannot continue if we want to have a strong university with the best and the brightest and keep all of our students in the province."
The group Students Supporting UMFA says many students back the faculty's decision to strike.
"I am sitting in because I want to get back in the classroom. I want my school to be filled with passionate and skilled educators," third-year philosophy and political sciences student Jaron Rykiss said in a University of Manitoba Faculty Association news release.
Curnow said the faculty association hopes Stefanson will provide a public statement rescinding such a mandate or a denial that there is indeed a mandate constraining the U of M's ability to bargain.
A statement from a spokesperson for Stefanson did not address the assertion that the province is imposing a wage freeze on university negotiations with the faculty association.
The spokesperson said the university's latest offer is publicly available on the institution's website.
"Government is not the employer and the university and UMFA are still in negotiations, through mediation, to explore resolution," the statement says.
"It's not clear whether the full details of UMFA's demands have been made public, but we urge both sides to continue their efforts to find common ground."
Faculty association members have had several "powerful" meetings with several MLAs in recent months to fill them in on how the issues are impacting the university, Curnow said. Two PC MLAs have agreed to meet, the union said.
"This is our best effort to get her to take the strike seriously," Curnow said. "[Stefanson] could stop the strike, and we think that is a responsibility that she needs to take extremely seriously."
- A previous version of this story stated all but two PC MLAs had met with UMFA, when in fact two MLAs have met with the union.Nov 08, 2021 4:39 PM CT
With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Bryce Hoye