Manitoba government must pay U of M union $19.3M for interfering in 2016 contract negotiations: judge

The Manitoba government must pay the University of Manitoba Faculty Association $19.3 million for covertly interfering with collective bargaining talks about five years ago, a judge has ruled.

'There was a serious and substantial undermining and interference,' Manitoba judge says

University of Manitoba Faculty Association members walk the picket line in this photo taken in November 2016. A Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench judge delivered a ruling Wednesday that says the province improperly interfered in negotiations between the union and the university. (Bert Savard/CBC)

The Manitoba government must pay the University of Manitoba Faculty Association $19.3 million for covertly interfering with collective bargaining talks about five years ago, a judge has ruled.

The province interfered in negotiations and violated charter rights, fuelling a 21-day strike by University of Manitoba Faculty Association members in 2016, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Joan McKelvey says in her ruling, delivered Wednesday.

"Manitoba's conduct significantly disrupted the balance between UM and UMFA along with their relationship, as well as causing significant discord between UMFA and its membership," McKelvey's decision says.

"There was a serious and substantial undermining and interference with what had been a meaningful and productive process of collective bargaining."

The province may play a role in bargaining, but it must do so in an open and honest way, McKelvey said.

That's not what happened in late 2016, when the Progressive Conservative government interfered in a collective bargaining process between the U of M and the faculty association that was likely to be resolved without a strike, she said.

Salary increase off the table

The strike stemmed from a government-mandated wage freeze that came late in negotiations that year, the judge said in the ruling. 

Following nine months of negotiations, the university had offered a four-year contract with wage increases that would have resulted in a salary increase of 17.5 per cent over the four years.

By September that year, the province had formed a public sector compensation committee, made up of cabinet ministers and others, which held meetings attended by then-premier Brian Pallister.

The committee crafted a one-year zero-per-cent wage-freeze policy and notified the U of M's chief negotiator the freeze was not negotiable, court documents say.

The province told the U of M not to disclose the provincial directive in talks with the union, and informed the university not complying would result in "financial repercussions," the judge's decision says.

The University of Manitoba walked back its initial offer and included a one-year wage freeze in an altered proposal to the faculty association in fall 2016. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The university went back to the faculty association in October with an altered proposal that included a one-year wage freeze.

Union members voted to strike in October 2016.

That month there were at least 30 "secretive" communications between the province and U of M, court documents say.

The strike ended after 21 days, when union members agreed to a one-year wage freeze.

David Camfield, a labour studies professor at the U of M, said McKelvey's ruling is a significant rebuke of the government's actions.

"I think it's pretty clear that they made a mistake. It was very short-term thinking. They thought they could get away with it and they didn't expect that they were going to be found to have engaged in unlawful behaviour," he said.

Camfield suspects the province will appeal the amount it has to pay.

A government spokesperson wouldn't commit to that on Thursday, saying in an email that the province "will be thoroughly reviewing the decision and taking legal advice on appeal considerations."

David Camfield, a University of Manitoba labour studies professor, said the province engaged in unlawful behaviour when it tried to intervene in collective bargaining at the university. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Following the 2016 strike, the province introduced the controversial Public Services Sustainability Act in 2017, which mandated two years of wage freezes for government workers and a 1.75 per cent increase over the next two years. It was never proclaimed into law, but the province did require some of its employers to restrict or freeze wages.

In June 2020, McKelvey struck down the legislation, calling it a "draconian measure which limits and reduces a union's bargaining power" and violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The province was partly successful in its appeal of that decision last fall. Manitoba's Court of Appeal ruled the bill did not violate sections of the charter devoted to protecting workers' bargaining rights. 

However, appeals judges said the government violated the faculty association's collective bargaining rights when it interfered with negotiations in 2016.

Premier Heather Stefanson repealed the wage-freeze bill last fall.

In hindsight, Camfield said the government "jumped the gun" in discreetly interfering with negotiations before it had wage-freeze legislation in place.

Faculty association president Orvie Dingwall called McKelvey's decision a "bittersweet victory" and said Manitoba is still mandating wages in the public sector.

"The government's actions were harmful to UMFA members and students at the University of Manitoba," Dingwall said in a statement.

"The Stefanson government should recognize the costs of their continued interference and must use this opportunity to change their course and respect the independence of Manitoba's universities, and workers' rights in collective bargaining."

Of the $19.3 million plus interest the Manitoba government is required to pay, about $16 million will go to staff for lost wages and nearly $3 million is earmarked to cover UMFA costs associated with the 2016 strike, the union said.

With files from Ian Froese


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