'Enough of this': U of M asks faculty to sign short-term offer, get students back to class

University of Manitoba administration is urging striking faculty members to sign the latest offer, which will only last until March, and allow students to get back to class.

'We have put workable and practical proposals on the table,' faculty association president responds

Faculty members continue to walk the picket lines at the University of Manitoba with no new bargaining dates set. (CBC)

University of Manitoba administration is urging striking faculty members to sign the latest offer, which will only last until March, and allow students to get back to class.

"The semester, every day this goes on, is being adversely affected. Our community has had enough of this. They want this settled; they want this solved," said John Kearsey, vice-president of external relations for the U of M.

The strike by the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, which represents more than 1,200 members, began Nov. 1 after mediation failed. The two sides have been in discussions since March 2016, when the last collective agreement expired.

This could be done in 24 hours, 48 hours, and we could be back in the classroom.- John Kearsey

A provincially appointed conciliator was brought in Nov. 2, but those talks ended on the weekend without any resolution. 

Kearsey said administration has made several concessions, but the union won't budge.

"It's very difficult to keep going back to a table to say 'Let's negotiate' when one party is so entrenched in their perspectives and their positions and they're not willing to move," he said.

If the dispute isn't somehow resolved by Wednesday, it will impact the next university term as well, Kearsey said.

He called on the faculty association to accept the latest offer and then continue discussions on the main sticking issue of workload concerns without punishing students further.

"We can sign this collective agreement. There are only five months left," he said. "Get our students back in the classroom and let's keep this other discussion going.

"This could be done in 24 hours, 48 hours, and we could be back in the classroom."

That's not going to happen, said faculty association president Mark Hudson.

"What he's actually asking us to do is give up on every single issue that we are striking for," he said.

"We've come to a strike because the university was not willing to talk to us about these issues earlier on, and it's not a decision we took lightly but one we felt we had to take."

Student support

Several student councils have come out in support of their professors' union, saying UMFA members' workloads are a problem that affects educational quality at the U of M, Hudson noted.

"We have put workable and practical proposals on the table that address these concerns about quality of education, and the administration simply keeps saying no," he said.

"What [Kearsey is] asking us [is] to disregard the concerns our members have had for years and disregard the voices of the students that also recognize this is about our ability to deliver an excellent education at U of M. We're not willing to do that."

If administration truly wants to see students back in the classroom, there are "very workable, practical proposals on the table. Sign off on those and we'll be back in the classroom tomorrow," Hudson said.

Kearsey said if UMFA isn't interested in the offer, the union should at least let its members decide, adding many union members are showing signs of discontent.

"There are one-third of the UMFA members who are not on the picket line right now, not participating in this strike. Over the last couple of days, 15 more people came from the picket line back to the classroom," he said.

"In fairness, four people left the classroom and went to the picket line," he added.

Hudson said there is always a concern as strikes get longer and the weather gets worse that resolve will dissolve, but he insists that has not yet been the case.

"The support is astonishingly strong," he said. "Report after report after report from the board of representatives [which represents every faculty member] is that people are actually getting more resolute."

'Gigantic waste of time'

Hudson said the union won't present "a stale offer that does nothing for us" to its members.

UMFA's executive council, collective agreement committee and board of representatives all considered the offer further on Monday and agreed it would be "a gigantic waste of time" to go to the membership, Hudson said.

"This is an offer that's a week old and our members have seen it," he said. "We sent it out to every single one of our members as soon as the university gave it to us on Nov. 6. All of the feedback we got from the membership on that was extremely negative."

The offer provides no workload protections, no adequate protections against performance indicators and no new job security for instructors and librarians, Hudson said.

"Given that we've set salary aside for the moment, those are our big three bargaining issues."

 He has also said it's not true that UMFA isn't willing to make some concessions.

"We have moved, and we have moved, and we have moved at the bargaining table to try and avert a strike initially, to try and shorten the strike to the extent we can," he said. 

The union can't make any further concessions without damaging the quality of education at the school, he said.

"We're at a point now where, were we to really retreat significantly from the positions that we have on the table, we would be sacrificing that quality of education, unquestionably, moving forward, for students now, but also for students in five years."

Some classes have been going on as usual because they are taught by non-UMFA members — teaching assistants and sessional instructors. However, most students are registered in classes with professors who are on the picket lines.