The threat of a possible strike by University of Manitoba faculty has agriculture student Kevin Martin thinking he’s experiencing deja vu — and he doesn’t like it.
Martin, in his sixth year after completing a two-year certificate program in agriculture before deciding to get his agribusiness degree, was a student in 2016 when U of M faculty members hit the picket lines.
"Two strikes in the last four years kind of baffles me," he said Monday.
"It is extremely disappointing when we are at this point in a pandemic... and, if the teachers get a raise, where does the money come from? Probably us."
The faculty was out for three weeks in November 2016 before settling, forcing the university to schedule classes later than usual in December. Students studied through Christmas holidays to prepare for January exams.
At the time, the University of Manitoba Faculty Union (representing professors, instructors and librarians) accepted a one-year agreement with no wage increase, but included provisions for putting limits on workload, improvements to governance issues, and no layoffs for librarians or instructors before 2019.
This time, 80 per cent of UMFA members approved a potential strike over the administration’s refusal to agree to binding arbitration.
"It’s time for President (Michael) Benarroch to do what is best for the University community and agree to neutral, third party interest arbitration, or return to the bargaining table with a reasonable counter-offer," UMFA president Michael Shaw said in a statement Monday.
"Arbitration by a neutral third party is the most secure way forward. We are asking for a fair deal."
UMFA is asking for what it calls a modest increase in wages for the 2020-21 contract year, a more equitable salary grid, and extra support through the COVID-19 pandemic for faculty members who are looking after a dependent at home.
The union is also asking for the wage offer the university put forward in 2016 — revoked when the Pallister government intervened — be restored and paid. A Court of Queen’s Bench decision last June declared the government’s capping of wage increases for all public sector workers unconstitutional.
In response, UMFA said the university countered by asking for the status quo, blaming the provincial government’s mandated zero-per-cent salary increase.
As for the university, a spokesman said "right now the University remains hopeful that an agreement with UMFA can be reached."
A statement on the university’s website posted last Friday noted the two sides have met to negotiate eight times since Aug. 20, and the aim of negotiating is supposed to be for the one year of salary agreed to four years ago. It says the faculty’s actual contract doesn’t expire until March 31, 2021.
But Martin said students are at home taking classes virtually and paying even more tuition than they paid last year.
"I haven’t been inside a classroom since March," he said. "We’re paying more and it is the teachers who say they’re being treated unfairly? I wish the students could go on strike to fight for what’s fair. I love the faculty of agriculture, but I’m beyond tired of this school."
The union said it will hold a horn-honking protest at the legislature on Thursday at 2 p.m., to protest the government’s zero-per-cent mandate.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.