Opinion

On Monday morning, in a courtroom well away from the picket lines at the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus, there will be a gathering of officials from the province, the school and the union representing striking teachers that could be the beginning of an end to the labour conflict that has shut down classes for thousands of students.

On Monday morning, in a courtroom well away from the picket lines at the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus, there will be a gathering of officials from the province, the school and the union representing striking teachers that could be the beginning of an end to the labour conflict that has shut down classes for thousands of students.

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association has been on strike since early November after talks broke down on a new three-year contract. However, even as mediated negotiations continue on the current contract, the two sides along with the provincial government will be facing off over a costly court settlement triggered by events five years ago.

In October, the Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld the Public Sector Sustainability act, the so-called wage-freeze legislation, even though a lower court found it to be unconstitutional.

However, the appellate court also found the provincial Progressive Conservative government had "substantially" interfered in 2016 contract talks between the U of M and the faculty association by secretly ordering the school to freeze the wages of teachers.

University of Manitoba Faculty Association members and students picketed in front of Premier Heather Stefanson’s constituency office earlier this month. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

University of Manitoba Faculty Association members and students picketed in front of Premier Heather Stefanson’s constituency office earlier this month. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Manitoba’s conduct not only significantly disrupted the balance between the U of M and UMFA, but also significantly damaged their relationship, thereby seriously undermining what had been a meaningful and productive process of good faith collective bargaining," the court concluded.

As a result of that decision, the university, faculty association and the province will gather next week in a Winnipeg court to make submissions on how much money in damages should be paid to UMFA. Previously, the university estimated the total cost of retroactive pay could approach $10 million but UMFA is also entitled to seek punitive damages, which could add substantially to the final tally.

How could this impact the current contract talks?

Although the strike is anchored to a dispute over wage increases for the next three years, it will be hard for the parties to completely ignore the looming issue of damages.

Fortunately, contract talks can and regularly do deal with retroactive and future wages and benefits at the very same time.

Unfortunately, there is always a possibility that government and the school could try to drag things out.

The strike that has disrupted classes at the university is unusual in many respects. Even though more than 800 teachers have stopped teaching, as many as 1,400 teachers are still at work, either because they are not represented by UMFA or because they've chosen to cross the picket line.

That creates a potentially dangerous scenario where either the school or government are simply not motivated to seek a settlement because, although thousands of students are locked out of their classes, thousands more are attending classes as usual.

One would hope the employer ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― university and government by way of operating grants ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― would not engage in a war of attrition and try to wait out the faculty association.

The good news is the same conditions that set the table for a war of attrition between the three sides also provides a window of opportunity for a truly, mutually beneficial conclusion.

Right now the university and faculty association are perilously close to agreeing to a three-year wage schedule. The gap is only 0.5 per cent in the first year, 0.25 per cent in the second year and 0.25 per cent in the third year.

That is not enough to warrant an extended strike.

The university and faculty association are close in terms of wages: the gap is only 0.5 per cent in the first year, 0.25 per cent in the second year and 0.25 per cent in the third year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The university and faculty association are close in terms of wages: the gap is only 0.5 per cent in the first year, 0.25 per cent in the second year and 0.25 per cent in the third year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

And then there are the damages triggered by the Appeal Court ruling. Unless the school or province is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which is their right, then both parties should appear in court Monday morning and announce they want to negotiate a fair sum and roll it into the new contract settlement.

Dragging out current contract talks is not going to make the damages go away. The Court of Appeal was quite clear in its conclusions about the government's intrusion into collective bargaining at the university.

And this is where Premier Heather Stefanson comes in.

Stefanson cannot and should not become involved in contract talks. However, as was made clear in the Court of Appeal ruling, her government bears the lion's share of responsibility for the damages now owing to the faculty association.

Stefanson said she wants to rebrand the PC government as more collaborative and open-minded. Her pledge is a thinly veiled attempt to erase the legacy of her predecessor.

There is no better way to demonstrate her sincerity than offering to pay government's fair share of the damages owed to the faculty association, which does not qualify as interference in the collective bargaining process but would create the right conditions for a settlement of a new contract going forward.

On the other hand, refusing to pay any damages or appealing the UMFA decision ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― which the province has the right to do up until early December ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­― would likely complicate and prolong the current talks.

It's not clear yet what position the Stefanson government will take on damages. UMFA officials believe there is some dispute between government and the university about which of them is more responsible for paying damages. If that is true, it will be quickly evident once all parties get to court.

But whatever decision Stefanson makes, she must know it will have huge implications for the current contract talks.

And for students.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.