Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Administration, province will wear this one

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BRANDON -- With the strike by Brandon University Faculty Association members now into its sixth week, the prevailing public narrative is that BUFA bears sole responsibility for this crisis.

The reactions of a Free Press online reader Monday to a report alleging the professors want to be paid for the time they spent on strike is representative of the escalating anger being directed at the BU professors.

"It's too bad they just can't fire the whole lot of them. They have mutated from professors to money-grubbing idiots. BU reputation is in the toilet because of the professors."

Hold your fire, folks. You're shooting at the wrong target.

I don't have a stake in this fight. None of my family members is a BU student or staffer. I may be one of a handful of persons not connected to the dispute, however, who has actually studied the details and chronology of the BU-BUFA negotiations.

I found that the previous collective agreement expired on March 31, but that bargaining on a new contract only commenced on May 17. At that meeting, BU administration served notice it intended to renegotiate every provision of the collective agreement other than the preamble.

The agreement is a massive, detailed document that governs every aspect of the employer-employee relationship. Rewriting the entire agreement is a gargantuan, time-devouring task.

Despite the size of that undertaking, BU's negotiators were only available for six bargaining sessions from June through August. Those sessions, none of which exceeded four hours in duration, were devoted almost exclusively to clause-by-clause negotiation of each of the collective agreement's 32 articles and nine appendices. Negotiations over the non-salary provisions of the agreement were only completed last Friday.

It was not until the Oct. 6 session -- four weeks after classes began -- that salary issues were seriously negotiated. Six weeks later, the difference between the two parties' positions is one per cent in the second year of the contract -- a meagre $200,000.

Where is the greed and intransigence that BUFA has been accused of? I have carefully studied the facts and I can't find it.

If this conflict had been solely about wages -- if the employer had not sought to rewrite the entire collective agreement and claw back concessions won by BUFA at the bargaining table over the past several decades -- it could have been settled by the end of June.

Even with the wholesale changes to the collective agreement requested by the employer, an agreement could have been reached before the end of August if there had been any sense of urgency on the part of BU's negotiators.

Rather than burning the midnight oil to reach an agreement, however, BU's bargaining team effectively took the summer off and waited until students were settled in their classrooms before approaching the negotiations with any degree of seriousness. It was part of a reckless strategy that dramatically increased the likelihood classes would be disrupted.

Repeated efforts by BU management to entice BUFA members to cross picket lines, along with inflammatory and misleading comments made by BU representatives to the media and on BU's website, have only exacerbated the situation and prolonged the strike's duration. BU's demand that faculty members work for free for several weeks after the strike -- and then accusing them of greed in the media when they refused -- is a new low in this dispute.

The Selinger government doesn't escape culpability in this debacle. It dictated BU's initial salary stance and refused to take reasonable steps to pre-empt the strike. Through their appointees on BU's board of governors, they control both BU's bargaining stance and the conduct of its bargaining team.

Labour Minister Jennifer Howard's extraordinary order that BUFA members vote on the employer's latest offer has derailed a collective bargaining process that was nearing conclusion.

This strike was entirely avoidable. It occurred because the employer bit off more than it could chew at the bargaining table, refused to seriously bargain until after classes resumed, underestimated BUFA's willingness to strike, and then embarked on a campaign to cripple and publicly smear the union.

Deveryn Ross is a Brandon

political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2011 A15

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