The Pallister government has told the University of Manitoba and its professors to extend their collective agreement by one year at zero per cent to “stabilize” public pay levels.

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The Pallister government has told the University of Manitoba and its professors to extend their collective agreement by one year at zero per cent to "stabilize" public pay levels.

Word broke Friday afternoon when U of M president David Barnard and U of M Faculty Association president Prof. Mark Hudson said in a joint statement that the Pallister government has directed them to extend collective agreements one year at zero per cent.

The two sides at the U of M were in their second day of mediation in a bid to avert a 7 a.m. strike deadline Tuesday. Mediation will continue throughout the weekend.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen later issued a statement in which he said the government has a responsibility to issue parameters to fix the province’s finances, but the statement made no mention of a zero per cent increase, and the premier’s office would not elaborate.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union has called for an emergency meeting with Premier Brian Pallister to find out what’s happening.

It wasn’t clear what other public-sector bargaining units would be affected or what the Tories would do if the order is ignored.

The university and UMFA said in a joint statement, "Bargaining has been presented with an unexpected complication, but both parties are resolved to continue discussions."

Said Barnard: "Over the past several days, the province has made clear to the university that it has established fresh mandate parameters that seek co-operation in achieving a compensation ‘pause’ throughout the public sector. Public bodies, including the University of Manitoba, are being asked to extend existing contracts for an additional year at zero per cent in order to stabilize publi- sector compensation levels.

"We now find ourselves in the unusual circumstance of having a newly articulated provincial mandate regarding public-sector compensation levels that will have a profound impact on the final compensation levels that we will be able to negotiate, despite having already made what we believe to be a fair and reasonable offer on Sept. 13," Barnard said.

"The (U of M) is indeed challenged by these circumstances coming at the end of what has been a difficult but advancing series of discussions since March 2016."

Hudson said in the joint statement: "This 11th-hour action represents illegitimate government interference in a constitutionally protected process of collective bargaining.

"Mediation continues, and our focus is to advance our members’ priorities through that process. The U of M is an independent body whose board must have the autonomy to engage in all aspects of negotiation," said Hudson. "The province has unnecessarily endangered a complex negotiation through this misguided interference, and its action has jeopardized the educational goals of every U of M student.

"UMFA is currently exploring legal options and continues to focus on negotiating a fair deal for its members."

New Democrat MLA James Allum, a former education minister, said it’s clear the government is interfering with collective bargaining at the U of M.

"That’s sending a chill right across the province," he said. "It’s quite a shocking development."

Allum said governments are entitled to set mandates of the wage increases with which they’d be comfortable, but not at the 11th hour of bargaining.

"I can’t speculate on the actions they’re (Tories) going to take," said Allum. "We’re looking for exactly how they’re going to react."

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said Friday afternoon: "The government has not told us anything about a unilateral wage freeze. Just yesterday (Thursday) , the premier said in the legislature, ‘I have tremendous respect for collective bargaining.’ And all summer he told our members that he would not be interfering in the bargaining process.

"We need to hear from the government directly, and that’s why we are requesting an emergency meeting with the premier. We need assurance from the province that the bargaining will be fair and free from interference," Gawronsky said.

Because a mediator has imposed a media blackout, said Barnard and Hudson, they won’t comment this weekend. Neither the university nor the union will say who in the government issued the order.

"Our negotiations comprise many issues of grave importance to valued faculty members, and these will be addressed as the mediation process continues this weekend," they said in their joint statement.

"Both parties recognize the impacts a strike can have on students and will work diligently to avoid such an outcome before the Nov. 1 strike deadline. The university administration and UMFA take our responsibility to the larger University of Manitoba community very seriously. We are united in caring deeply about the university’s mission to create, preserve and apply knowledge contributing to the well-being of this province, Canada and the world."

Their contract expired March 31.

The university has offered seven per cent over four years; for one-third of faculty still eligible for incremental raises, the total package would be 17.5 per cent over four years. UMFA has asked for a 6.9 per cent overall increase over one year, with improvements in benefits.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca