Two weeks into a faculty strike that has halted learning at the University of Manitoba, students stood on the snowy steps outside the office of the school’s president Monday to form a symbolic blockade.
"If we can’t be in the classroom, then the administration is not going to be in their office today," said Jaron Rykiss, a third-year philosophy and political studies student, who arrived on campus at about 6 a.m. to take part in the protest.
Students Supporting UMFA, a collective that has been vocal in its backing of the faculty association that represents professors, instructors and librarians at Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institute, organized a blockade outside the administration building on Chancellors Circle.
Approximately two dozen people, including protesters with signs bearing the phrases "Listen up Benarroch" (addressing president Michael Benarroch) and "Get back to bargaining," barred employees from entering their offices until 9:30 a.m.
"My life path is decided because one librarian gave me the right book and one professor met with me after office hours. It’s ridiculous to me that we don’t all see that we should be paying them better and it’s ridiculous that the university seems to think we’re worth second-last place in the U15," said Rykiss, who has been an organizer with the group throughout the strike, which officially began Nov. 2.
Of the top 15 research universities in Canada, U of M salaries are among the very bottom — a key point the union, which represents upwards of 1,200 staff, has raised throughout contentious bargaining talks.
The faculty association has repeatedly cited concerns low wages are affecting recruitment and retention. It has also pointed the finger at the Manitoba premier, saying a provincial mandate imposed on the U of M is interfering in talks and prolonging job action.
The province claims overarching mandates are not abnormal, given its role as a steward of public funds and key funder of post-secondary education. Meantime, the university continues to provide updates on bargaining and reiterate its stance it is negotiating in good faith to conclude a deal that is both sustainable and addresses concerns about staffing.
A university spokesperson indicated Monday a small group of U of M bargaining team members met with union representatives to clarify both sides’ latest offers over the weekend.
There has been repeated confusion and disagreement about how the figures outlined in both proposals should be reported.
The parties met at the bargaining table Monday to continue mediation as they work towards a new collective agreement.
MacGregor Goodman showed up to campus Monday to express frustration about the job action’s impact on courses.
One of the psychology student’s instructors, who initially went on strike, has since returned to teaching, citing the toll the strike has taken on students.
"I just find it absolutely heartbreaking that he would stop striking and fighting for a fair wage for himself and faculty because he sees how it’s badly affecting the students," said Goodman. "He shouldn’t have had to make that choice in the first place."
Advanced Education Minister Wayne Ewasko fielded questions about the ongoing strike during an unrelated news conference Monday.
"I strongly encourage the U of M and UMFA to continue their bargaining. We respect that process and again, I look forward to the end of this strike and for students who have been impacted to get back to classes," said Ewasko.
The minister said he will happily meet with any members of the union or faculty association after the strike because neither he nor his colleagues want to be seen as meddling in the labour dispute.
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.