U of M strike: union using students as pawns, says administration

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association has rejected a proposal from the school's administration. John Kearsey, vice president external for the University of Manitoba on Monday, called the situation "beyond disappointing."

Faculty want ongoing workload protection, says UMFA president

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association went on strike Nov. 1. The bargaining team has now received a proposal from the U of M administration. (CBC)

The University of Manitoba says the school's faculty association is using students as "pawns" in labour negotiations with administration.

The situation is "beyond disappointing," said John Kearsey, vice president external for the University of Manitoba on Monday. 

As UMFA's strike enters its second week, Kearsey said it would be possible to continue negotiations with the union without disrupting class for students.

Earlier in the day, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association rejected the school's latest offer, saying the proposal did not go far enough to protect members from arbitrary workload increases.

"We put a compromise offer on the table, we knew it wasn't perfect but we wanted to do something to show that we recognized issues around teaching workload and assignment and administrative workload," said Kearsey.

The offer proposed creating a special fund to hire more students as markers and teaching assistants to offset existing workload issues.

UMFA president Mark Hudson said if the administration was serious about dealing with workload, it should hire TAs and markers immediately, without tying it to UMFA bargaining.

"We think we have been crystal clear from the beginning for the basic protections that we are asking for. And so it's incredibly frustrating to read a proposal that doesn't seem to respond to what we have been telling them across the table," Hudson said.

The UMFA president said the amount of money the administration offered to hire more student teaching assistants and markers is less than University of Manitoba president and vice-chancellor David Barnard and his four vice presidents earned last year, a figure UMFA puts at $1.7 million a year. 

Barnard's salary alone is $452,000, according to Hudson. Of 13 equivalent universities in Canada, Barnard's income ranks third-highest, where UMFA salaries rank at the bottom of the list, said Hudson.

U of M worried about long strike

Administration at the university is concerned the strike could last a long time, said Kearsey. 

"We want our students back in the classroom where they belong," he said.

"You can imagine student's who've come from other countries to study at the University of Manitoba they didn't come here to sit in their apartments."

Hudson said the strike is about issues of core importance to all who work and study at the university.

"We think the issues we have on the table are not just the issues about our working conditions, not just issues about our quality of life for our members — they are issues that go to the heart of the student experience and quality of education at the U of M," said Hudson.

Pickets are still up along Chancellor Matheson Road, University Crescent and King's Drive as well as at the Bannatyne campus near the Brodie Centre next to the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre.

More than 1,200 faculty members officially went on strike on Nov. 1, impacting almost all 30,000 students in some way.

Growing frustration among students

Many classes are taught by non-UMFA members — teaching assistants and sessional instructors — and have been continuing, but the majority of students at the university are also registered in classes with professors who are now on the picket lines.

Information about courses, classroom scheduling and service changes can be found on the university's website.

The mood of many students towards the strike has begun to sour, University of Manitoba Students' Union president Tanjit Nagra said.

"I know a lot of students were kind of happy with a few days off, but I think now that it's gone on — this is technically Day 7 of the strike — a lot of students are concerned and wondering when they can get back to actually doing their coursework," Nagra said.

"At this point, I think everyone would like to just return back to normal."

University of Manitoba Students' Union president Tanjit Nagra says students were initially happy to get a couple of days off classes due to the faculty strike but are now worried and anxious. (Tanjit Nagra/Twitter)

The students' union plans to ask the university senate to extend the voluntary withdrawal date for students. The current deadline is Nov. 18, which is the latest time someone can drop a course without being penalized with an F grade.

"A lot of them are concerned. They haven't received feedback from professors — didn't have a chance to do that before the strike," Nagra said.

"They want to know how they're doing in their courses. Generally, that's a huge indicator that goes into a decision to voluntarily withdraw."

Strike may affect graduations

Students are also worried about the potential upheaval in their schedule. Nagra has been told that "under no circumstances" would the entire fall term be a writeoff, but there certainly could be a delay in exam dates, with some being put over to January from December.

That all depends on how long the strike continues. If it ends soon, there could just be minor shuffling of dates. But if it goes long, there could ultimately be a delay in spring graduation.

"At this point it's just really uncertain," Nagra said. "Nobody is at the point where they'd like to be studying over the winter break. A lot of students would be unhappy about that.

"I'm just hoping an agreement's met that both parties are happy with sooner rather than later."

That said, most students would not not be pleased if a temporary one-year deal is struck, just to save the academic year, Nagra said.

That could leave students facing the same situation next fall when the two sides are bargaining once again.

The faculty association has filed a formal complaint with the Manitoba Labour Board alleging unfair labour practice. The union says the university withdrew a salary offer at the last minute.