Taxpayers on hook for $19M after Tories interfered in U of M contract
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This article was published 24/02/2022 (398 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A judge has ordered the Tory government to pay the union that represents academics at the University of Manitoba more than $19.3 million in damages after the province secretly inserted itself into bargaining talks at the university in 2016.
In a ruling delivered Wednesday, Queen’s Bench Justice Joan McKelvey concluded that the government should pay the U of M Faculty Association (UMFA) millions to address proposed wage increases that never came to be as a result of interference and strike-related fees, in addition to interest.
The award includes: $15 million in one-time payments to academics who worked at the U of M between April 2016 and March 2020 to address lost wages due to interference, a total of $1.6 million for wages lost amid picketing, and $2.7 million to UMFA for strike-related costs.
“Manitoba’s conduct significantly disrupted the balance between (U of M) and UMFA along with their relationship, as well as causing significant discord between UMFA and its membership. There was a serious and substantial undermining and interference with what had been a meaningful and productive process of collective bargaining,” McKelvey wrote.
McKelvey said in the Feb. 23 ruling that the province has the right to play a role in public-sector bargaining, but must do so “honestly, openly and fairly,” which she indicated did not occur in this instance. The province can appeal the ruling.
“I have some very good news to share,” wrote union leader Orvie Dingwall, in an email sent to UMFA members late Wednesday.
“Despite the continued uncertainties of this process, I hope you all take a moment to celebrate this ruling. In 2016, we knew our rights were violated, and since then you have continued to defend your right to free and fair collective bargaining, and to protect the autonomy of the university from government interference. The justice, in her ruling, affirms these actions,” Dingwall added.
The faculty association had sought nearly $29 million in damages from the province, after two different court rulings concluded the government had interfered with contract negotiations between academics and their employer more than five years ago.
McKelvey ruled in June 2020 that the Progressive Conservatives’ controversial 2017 wage freeze legislation, known as the Public Services Sustainability Act (Bill 28) was unconstitutional and the province had interfered with the faculty association’s right to meaningful collective bargaining.
Six months before the PSSA was introduced, salary negotiations were underway between UMFA and the U of M in the fall of 2016. Administration had tabled an offer that would have given faculty association members a 17.5 per cent wage increase over four years.
However, in what faculty association lawyer Garth Smorang described in court last November as “secret communications,” the province told the university to withdraw its offer after learning about it — and to do so without disclosing the request to the union. An unexpected stalemate prompted professors, instructors and librarians to go on strike for 21 days before agreeing to a contract that froze their wages for one year, which is exactly what the province had asked U of M to negotiate.
In October, Manitoba’s Court of Appeal upheld the PSSA legislation while at the same time agreeing with the lower court that the province had “substantially” interfered in the 2016 UMFA contract talks. The province scrapped the PSSA in November.
The faculty association requested $22 million in lost wages and interest, $2.5 million in strike pay, and more in lost benefits and other losses. Smorang told court in November the damages sought would only compensate union members for losses suffered during the period of the proposed four-year contract.
In her update Wednesday, Dingwall told UMFA members that details about how the money will be distributed will only be finalized after the appeal period has ended. If the decision is appealed, it could take months, if not years, before the process is finalized, she wrote.
The Manitoba Labour Board had found the U of M was at fault for not disclosing its compliance with the government bargaining mandate, and ordered the administration to apologize and pay damages to UMFA members.
The Tory government was reviewing the decision and is expected to comment Thursday.
The NDP said taxpayers are on the hook for the government’s decision to interfere in collective bargaining.
“(Former premier Brian) Pallister’s pointless bullying caused chaos and delays for students, and now, it’s cost Manitobans $19 million. Unlike Premier Stefanson, who stayed silent, UMFA stood up to Brian Pallister and won,” NDP critic Jamie Moses said in a statement.
— with files from Carol Sanders
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Thursday, February 24, 2022 8:04 AM CST: Changes background graf to 21 days from one month