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Unless an agreement is reached between the University of Manitoba and its faculty association this weekend, the institution will face its fourth strike in history, on Monday.

As of Friday, negotiations were continuing with the help of a mediator: a hopeful sign. If talks break down, rotating picket lines, socially distanced rallies, honk-a-thons and online campaigns will begin Monday. It will be a strike like no other in Manitoba history.

Yet, faculty association members — instructors, librarians, and professors like me — don’t want a strike. Students definitely don’t want it, either. By all accounts, U of M administrators don’t want a strike.

No one wants this work stoppage, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why might it happen?

In the U of M’s 143-year history, faculty-driven strikes have happened three times — in 1995, 2001 and 2016. If it happens, this will be the second strike under Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government. So, this is all on Pallister.

Four years ago, the 21-day strike was held despite faculty and administration agreeing to a small pay increase and commitments to address workload and protect jobs. While the agreement was not perfect, it was enough to get the university running again.

But Pallister sabotaged the negotiations. He commanded the university to mislead the faculty association and withdraw salary increases. This resulted in the university negotiating in bad faith, originally offering a seven per cent pay increase over four years and then – almost overnight – offering two years of zero per cent, a 0.75 per cent increase and a one per cent increase over the last two. Without this, there would likely have been no strike.

Later, after Pallister’s interference came to light, the Manitoba Labour Board forced the university to pay faculty members $2.4 million in compensation.

Pallister wasn’t done though. He introduced the Public Services Sustainability Act, which froze all public-sector salaries, and he refused to let the U of M go to binding arbitration to settle salary negotiations in 2017.

In June, the act was deemed unconstitutional by a Manitoba judge. Now, the university and union are bargaining on a salary "reopener".

So, here we are, on the cusp of a strike no one wants, at the behest of a premier who seems dead set against the public sector.

The university has the money. Besides the $2.4 million the administration had to pay in 2018 for Pallister’s meddling (a third of one per cent of the university’s $675-million operating budget), the U of M has one of the lowest salary ranges of any major university in Canada.

Since the collective agreement and Pallister’s wage freeze, salaries have remained below market while tuition has gone up (in 2019: 3.75 per cent or approximately $10 million), enrolment has increased and provincial education transfers have as well. In April, the U of M announced it had raised $626 million in its Front & Centre campaign.

Comparatively, the cost of a faculty wage increase of two per cent (or $2,000 for each of the 1,200 faculty members) is $2.4 million — the same amount the university handled just fine in 2018.

So, money isn’t really the issue, politics is.

Pallister wants to cut public-sector jobs, salaries, and working conditions, period. He’s using the pandemic as an excuse.

From cutting emergency rooms to Manitoba Hydro jobs, Pallister hasn’t let anything stop him from cutting the public service. Remember his request to provincial departments, Crown corporations and universities to devise scenarios for reductions of 10, 20 and 30 per cent — at the opening days of the pandemic — when money was flowing freely?

The U of M’s potential strike on Monday is the outcome of one man’s vision.

In August, Finance Minister Scott Fielding sent a letter to the university calling for an "all hands on deck approach" in which full-time academics are "cut by 2.5 per cent" and professors, instructors, and librarians must accept no increase in salary.

Everyone understands we live in difficult times, but during Pallister’s time in government the public sector has never known anything but. This isn’t really about the pandemic but the austerity goals of a premier.

After the 2016 strike, the carnage was evident. Students were stressed out and performed poorly when courses resumed. I remember how professors came back to weeks of piled-up work and lost time in research. They had to work three times harder to try to catch up. I also know how non-union faculty, staff and administrators were forced to pick sides, resulting in frayed relationships that still exist.

Now, we may see something unprecedented in one of the most complicated times in history: a faculty strike in the middle of a pandemic.

And one where no one will win.

Well, one man will, I suppose. The rest of us be damned.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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