University of Manitoba, faculty association hit impasse in mediation

Numerous classes could be cancelled for some 29,000 University of Manitoba students as early as Tuesday morning, as collective bargaining negotiations have failed between the university and its faculty association.

29K university students' classes in jeopardy as collective bargaining negotiations break down

A notice was posted on the University of Manitoba's website, saying an impasse has been reached in negotiations with the faculty association. (CBC)

Numerous classes could be cancelled for some 29,000 University of Manitoba students as early as Tuesday morning, as collective bargaining negotiations have failed between the university and its faculty association.

University administration said the faculty association "walked away from a weekend of mediation" and presented a final offer on Sunday night.

The university said it then put forward a counter-offer at 11:30 a.m. Monday, but it was rejected by the faculty.

That means more than 1,200 faculty members at the Fort Garry and Bannatyne campuses can go on strike as of 7 a.m. CT Tuesday, said John Kearsey, the university's vice-president (external).

A provincially-appointed conciliator will sit down with both sides Wednesday to try and reach an agreement, Kearsey said.

"I'm an optimist so I keep thinking, you know, let's always keep the conversation going, and this will help get us back to the table to talk about some of the issues that we weren't able to resolve in mediation during the weekend and over the past many months," he said.

"I'm so disappointed because it puts our students in such a difficult situation going forward, especially this time in the semester."

Kearsey said officials are exploring all possible options to prevent a disruption to students. A complete and up-to-date list of courses that will not be cancelled can be found on the university's website.

In talks since March

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 blamed each other for the current situation, with administration accusing the association of rejecting a number of offers.

"We find ourselves in a situation today which is most unfortunate, because we have students whose lives are going to be disrupted tomorrow as a result of UMFA's decision to go on strike," Kearsey said.

In a statement, the faculty association said the university "failed to make a single meaningful, acceptable offer on UMFA's main priorities of job security for librarians and instructors, workload protection, protection from performance indicators and closing the salary gap."

"Stakes are high for us, our students and their families. Students make sacrifices to attend university. They deserve the highest possible quality education. Yet more and more, students are seeing reduced course offerings and growing class sizes," said UMFA president Mark Hudson.

In the faculty of arts alone last year, instructors experienced a 30 per cent workload increase, Hudson said, adding there is nothing in the previous collective agreement to prevent that from happening over and over again.

"We have to be worried about what the quality of education is going to look like in 10 years. Our decision was that if there's not adequate protections on those workload increases, then we have to draw a line in the sand and nothing that came across during mediation on paper had anything like an adequate protection," he said.

Changing rules 'in overtime'

During question period on Monday, NDP interim leader Flor Marcelino and Fort Rouge NDP MLA Wab Kinew accused the Pallister government of inserting itself into delicate months-long negotiations.

"The actions of this government are akin to trying to change the rules of the game when the game is already in overtime," Kinew said.

An email that went out to students last Friday included a statement from UMFA, in which the association said the province "illegitimately interfered" in the collective bargaining process currently underway between the U of M and the faculty association.

The email stipulated that the Tory government asked the university, along with other public bodies, to extend contracts an extra year at zero per cent.

Kinew said butting into negotiations ultimately stands to hurt students.

"The premier's misguided, unilateral, last minute interference with the University of Manitoba Faculty Association is going to have a real impact on students," he said. 

"It looks like there's going to be a strike and the premier's not helping. In fact he's actively making the situation worse."

Bad timing

Kearsey said the province's timing wasn't convenient for negotiations, which had been going on for months beforehand.

"I would say it's much more than that. It was disruptive, it was last minute, it really threw a wrench into an already delicate and complex set of negotiations," Hudson said.

Pallister said the allegation that the province interfered with negotiations is "not justified or true."

Asked whether his administration would like to see the university and faculty association agree to a one-year zero wage increase, Pallister refused to give a straight answer. But despite the timing of the email from the UMFA and U of M on Friday, he said the province made their position known to the university weeks ago.

"We have done our part to demonstrate to the negotiating team at the U of M what we would like to see as an outcome," Pallister said.

"Now it's up to management and labour, as it should be, in any collective bargaining discussion to arrive at a conclusion. I understand that they've also asked for a conciliator to come in and so we'll happily assist them in that."

Pallister added that workers in most public service sectors in Manitoba have agreed to zero wage increases on one occasion or another in the past.

"I don't negotiate in public, but I will say this: It's very clear that we think the rate of growth and spending on wages [in Manitoba] is not sustainable. Very, very clear," he said.

Picketing likely

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE 3909) came out in support of the strike Monday night.

"[We are] in full support of UMFA's strike action in an effort to achieve a fair agreement with the U of M," the statement reads.

While all signs point to UMFA members hitting the picket lines at 7 a.m. Tuesday, Hudson said it's possible that could change.

"That final offer is still before [the university] and if they want to meet us on that, my telephone line is open until midnight tonight."

With files from Sean Kavanagh