Union busting at the University of Manitoba

Nov 17, 2021 | News, Resources

The current PC government is no friend of organized labour and upon taking office in 2016  immediately took aim at the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA). UMFA and the  University were in the middle of contract negotiations and the university had tabled an offer of modest wage increases. Behind the scenes the new government stepped in to force the University to withdraw that offer and replace it with what later became the Bill 28 wage provisions. 

Extortion is defined as using threats or force to obtain something, usually money. 

The PCs, not yet having introduced Bill 28 (The Public Sector Sustainability Act) into the legislature,  threatened to cut University funding if they didn’t comply, and forbade the administration from telling the union. 

Quite plainly they resorted to extortion to extract wage concessions from UMFA. The Manitoba Court of Appeal recently upheld the ruling that this was an unconstitutional breach of UMFA’s charter right to freedom of association. 

It continued in 2020, after UMFA had already completed the Bill 28 four-year wage regimen.  Fielding extorted another year of wage freeze, the third in five years, from UMFA by again threatening the university with financial penalties if they did not cut salary expenditures by 2.5%.  He made good on his threat. 

And now in 2021, Fielding wants to roll back even more salaries that are already at the bottom of  their university cohort. This comes at a time when even the university administration admits that faculty salaries are too low. The university, running a healthy surplus, has the financial wherewithal to offer fair salaries. But Fielding won’t allow that. His bargaining mandate means,  in real dollars, a big wage cut over the next three years. 

These strong-arm tactics are union-busting, plain and simple.

The PCs have decided that Manitobans shouldn’t have a high-quality university system saying in effect: “We don’t want it, we won’t pay for it. And we won’t let you pay for it either.” So if you want to seek a high-quality university education, your daughters or sons may need to look out of province.

Some PC cabinet ministers even went to university, where they took mostly liberal arts degrees,  mostly at the University of Manitoba. After enjoying the benefits of their education, they are now pulling up the drawbridge behind them so that young Manitobans behind them cannot do the same. 

A university can be no better or worse than the quality of its faculty. For a party that prides itself on its business acumen, the PCs seem particularly obtuse about the relationship between wages and attracting talented workers.

At the risk of breaking the moratorium on the use of sports analogies, indulge me briefly.  University faculty are free agents, able to market their skills to the highest bidder. You can’t attract  NHL calibre talent by paying AHL wages. And while Winnipeg has some redeeming features, the ability to ice-fish or snowshoe five months a year is not as big an attraction as some might think.

If you want to attract and keep good faculty, you must pay competitive wages. 

The PCs have a different plan. Defund universities; make students and their families pay more for an education of lesser quality. Their goal is to replace our universities with glorified community colleges that provide just-in-time job skills. Colleges are important, and play a key role in the post-secondary system. But their role is different from that of universities.

Universities prepare graduates not just for jobs but for life. Universities focus not on training with a short shelf life but the more durable ‘power’ skills – communication, critical thinking, problem solving and leadership – that allow people to adapt to rapidly changing conditions including careers that may not yet exist. 

The evidence of success is ample. University graduates in Manitoba show the highest salaries and rates of employment of any segment in society, being effectively fully employed. You can’t do better than that. And during the pandemic university graduates were the least likely to lose their jobs.

Universities are leaders in the research, innovation and economic development that will deliver us from the darkness of the pandemic. But the current PC government doesn’t see that: instead, they want universities to be smaller, cheaper, and of lesser quality. 

Premier Stefanson has the opportunity to chart a new path from that of Brian Pallister. 

She can start by removing the shackles of a bargaining mandate that cripples the ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty for the University of Manitoba. Their current policy of deliberately wrecking our education and health care systems just doesn’t resonate with  Manitobans. If they won’t lift a finger to improve our public services, the very least they can do is get out of the way of people who are trying to do exactly that. 

Scott Forbes is the President of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations and a Professor of Biology at the  University of Winnipeg.