The University of Manitoba first heard from the Pallister government early last fall it was being ordered to freeze wages.
But the university had been worried bad times were coming as far back as March 2016, during the provincial election campaign, Gregory Juliano, the university's associate vice-president of human relations, told a Manitoba Labour Board Tuesday.
The board is hearing an unfair labour practice charge brought by the U of M Faculty Association over bargaining last year that led to a three-week strike in November. The two sides settled for a government-ordered one-year wage freeze and changes to governance, workload and promotions.
In March 2016, "The university was concerned about the pending provincial election," Juliano testified under friendly questioning from university lawyer Rod Roy. He could start cross-examination by UMFA lawyer Garth Smorang sometime Wednesday.
"We had heard from the Conservative party that it was interested in financial restraint," said Juliano, but the U of M wasn't hearing any campaign policies about post-secondary education. "We were not a high priority for that party."
The collective bargaining agreement expired March 31, 2016, and the U of M immediately offered a one-year deal at a 1.5 per cent raise, to give some time for the two sides to bargain over a list of improved working conditions the union wanted. The union turned it down.
The initial government contact came in a phone call late in September — about which Juliano has not yet testified — from Gerry Irving, the province's secretary of the priorities and planning secretariat, the labour board heard. Juliano said he talked with Irving throughout October.
"They seemed to be interested in some of the public sector, but not all of the public sector," Juliano said. "We did not feel they were applying the mandate across the public sector in a consistent and fair way."
Irving told him the Pallister government was less concerned about teachers because school divisions had taxing powers to pay them, Juliano said.
"I was advised by Mr. Irving that the government was paying close attention to (Manitoba) Hydro" but allowed Hydro to sign a multi-year deal "because they agreed to engage in a radical restructuring involving jobs cuts."
Juliano testified the U of M did what the government wanted because the university needs to maintain good relations with whichever party is in power.
"We'd have a very difficult time pushing back in a very public way... if the government takes action we don't believe is in the best interests of the university," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, UMFA president Prof. Mark Hudson testified that at the start of last October, the university wanted to "move this forward rapidly" because of signs the government planned to get involved.
Around Oct. 12, Hudson told the hearing, university president David Barnard and senior administrators were "summoned" to meet with Finance Minister Cameron Friesen.
But it was not until Oct. 27, when the two sides were in last-minute talks to try to avoid a strike, that the U of M told the union about the government's order to get a one-year collective bargaining agreement with a wage freeze, Hudson said. "The university had been given orders, and there was little or no room" to refuse, Hudson said.
"Certainly, yes, zero per cent was unacceptable to us," said Hudson, who believed the university would then become more flexible on working conditions — though he acknowledged to Roy there is nothing in written notes of bargaining sessions to back up that assertion.
Hudson said the union felt "the government needs to be outed" and the two sides immediately issued a joint statement.
The U of M collective bargaining last year was the first sign Pallister's Tories planned to freeze public sector wages, even though the premier has never confirmed any of the contact between the government and the university took place.
The wage control Bill 28 goes to public hearings Monday and Tuesday and will become law by June 1, though it will be retroactive to March 20. It imposes on 120,000 public sector workers in their next collective bargaining agreements a wage freeze in the first two years, a maximum increase of 0.75 per cent in the third year, and a maximum 1.0 per cent in the fourth year.