As potential faculty strike looms, province still wants U of Manitoba to cut employee costs

As faculty members head toward a possible strike, the provincial government continues to insist the University of Manitoba find savings in labour costs it was seeking when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The government has told university administration to seek a 2.5 per cent reduction in labour costs from faculty, while it negotiates wages for the 2020-21 school year.

Michael Shaw, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, says it’s another blow to his members, who will go on strike on Nov. 16 if they don’t reach a deal with university administration soon. 

“We frankly don’t understand it. The university’s refused to explain what it means to us,” he said of the demand for a payroll cut, which the province says stems from the pandemic.

“We’re working more hours. We’re teaching more students than ever with the same size workforce we had last year, so I really have no idea how we could cut our expenditures.” 

The Progressive Conservative government made a renewed push to find financial savings as the pandemic started draining government revenues in the spring.

Initially, the province asked universities, schools and Crown corporations, among other publicly funded bodies, to identify ways to cut employee costs by up to 30 per cent. The request was soundly denounced by labour groups. 

The government eventually settled on a much more modest across-the-board 2.2 per cent cut in non-essential operating expenses.

University of Manitoba faculty have threatened a strike as their negotiations with the province have stalled. The university says the two sides have agreed to mediation as the next step in the process, starting this week. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

Three unions at the University of Manitoba representing non-faculty staff took part, but not the university’s faculty.

Months later, the government wants to change that.

“Parts of our university community have already joined in our collective fight against COVID-19 and we are very grateful,” Finance Minister Scott Fielding said in a statement.

“But we must appreciate that an all-hands-on-deck approach is required by the unprecedented circumstances all Manitobans are facing together.”

Layoffs for other unions

The government settled on a 2.5 per cent cut for faculty because that’s the weighted average of the expense reductions taken by the other three bargaining units: Unifor, the Association of Employees Supporting Education Services (AESES), and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 1482.

The unions say they were subject to layoffs early in the pandemic. Unifor had 220 temporary layoffs, AESES counted 140 temporary layoffs and CUPE 1482 lost seven casual term positions. Some of those people remain off the job, the unions say.

In other cases across Manitoba, public-sector employees took a few unpaid days off, rather than face layoffs. 

A government spokesperson said it would be up to the faculty association and the university to meet the 2.5 per cent savings target in a mutually agreed upon way.

Shaw argued the province’s approach is misguided, especially as U of M enrolment increased by 3.7 per cent this fall, mainly due to a spike in the number of part-time students.

“Students return to university when the economy has a hiccup … and they get ready for an expanding economy to come,” Shaw said. “We think it’s time to invest in Manitoba universities.”

The two parties are already at the negotiating table. U of M faculty association members recently voted in favour of hitting the picket line over the labour dispute.

For the last year of their four-year collective bargaining agreement, UMFA and U of M administration agreed to renegotiate wages, after the Manitoba Labour Board determined the university engaged in an unfair labour practice at the government’s direction. The union complained that the university had withdrawn a salary offer. 

The University of Manitoba apologized to its faculty association after the Manitoba Labour Board found in 2016 that the university engaged in an unfair labour practice. (Bert Savard/CBC)

As that fourth year arrives, the government is once again asking for no wage increase, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic. The requested one-year wage freeze and 2.5 per cent labour expense cut was detailed in a August letter to the U of M administration from Fielding, which the Opposition NDP presented during question period last month.

Jamie Moses, the NDP critic for Economic Development and Training, said every union should have the right to negotiate a deal that’s fair to them.

Blaming the pandemic, the province has requested similar wage freezes from Winnipeg School Division bus drivers and some Manitoba Hydro workers.

The government has argued that it is well within its purview to set broad mandates for public-sector negotiations.

Last Thursday afternoon, dozens of vehicles and some cyclists circled the Manitoba Legislature grounds, honking their horns to protest the government’s mandated wage freeze.

The two sides agreed that day to bring in a mediator to help settle their dispute.

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