May 12, 2021 - UMFA Bargaining Update #1
UMFA is once again entering a bargaining round, attempting to negotiate a contract with an employer hamstrung by a hostile government. Like other public sector unions subject to the Public Sector Sustainability Act (PSSA), we find ourselves with deflated wages that will not see movement without sustained, intense pressure on the provincial government itself, in addition to all the things we have to do to show the University administration that we’re serious about the changes we need to see at the U of M.
Who is the barrier to achieving a salary increase?
The University President has explicitly said in the University Senate that UMFA salaries are 8% too low, but also said the government has not given a mandate to the University to provide salary increases.1
The government’s commitment to this position -- which it’s held since at least 2016 -- was confirmed by its reaction to the COVID stipend negotiated in November 2020: a dollar amount roughly equal to the total cost of the UMFA COVID stipend was subsequently removed from monies allocated to the UM by the government through the “Transition Support Fund”. That fund was itself taken from the University grant shortly after the pandemic hit, then (partially) returned after being earmarked for costs associated with the pandemic, online teaching, and “labour market alignment”.
This is to say that both the administration and the government are the barriers preventing improvements to our salaries. The government is intent on implementing its plans for the “performance based funding” of PSE, and the University administration fears the cuts the government will impose if it agrees to increase our salaries.
Who in the public sector has received wage increases in the last 4 years?
Manitoba Hydro workers, represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 2034, have been asking for salary raises for several years. They, too, have been subjected to the PSSA. Things came to a head this March, when the IBEW decided it had to set up picket lines to make gains at the bargaining table. Their employer has continued to refuse to deviate from the government’s mandate on wages, however -- Hydro workers are still on strike.
The only salary increases provided to workers subject to the PSSA in the last four years have come through legal access to arbitration, or through doors opened by previous successful arbitrations. This includes unions that had the Labour Board write their contracts after lengthy strikes (The Winnipeg School Division Bus Drivers) and branches of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society that have legally-mandated access to arbitration to resolve collective bargaining disputes. While arbitrated settlements at two School Boards induced other Boards to make salary offers to their teachers, the Manitoba Government Employees Union (MGEU), which also has legally-mandated access to arbitration, had to fight in the courts for almost two years to have that access granted. This was because the government was unlawfully blocking their progress.
In 2016 UMFA proposed arbitration, but the administration refused because the Government wouldn’t give them a mandate to seek a neutral third-party’s binding decision on salary. A similar proposal was rebuffed by the administration in 2020, for similar reasons.
What about all the other improvements that I want to see at the U of M?
This round of bargaining is about the Collective Agreement as a whole. The bargaining survey will be coming to your inbox soon, and constituency meetings have already started. The Collective Agreement Committee will combine all it learns from the survey and these meetings with all the grievance work that’s been done over the past three and more years to work up bargaining proposals. Those proposals will be presented to everyone for debate and a vote at a Special General Meeting to be called for early this summer.
What about the PSSA? Where does UMFA fit in the context of other public sector unions?
In 2017 UMFA joined the Partnership to Defend Public Services (PDPS) to launch a legal challenge of the Public Services Sustainability Act (PSSA). As university workers aren’t technically public servants (the U of M is autonomous from the government, and about half of the operating budget comes from non-governmental sources), the government had to specifically target U of M employees in its austerity plans. This was true of others, too. The PDPS is for this reason composed of many union locals, large and small -- some no bigger than 3 people (IATSE Local 63 represents stagehands at Centennial Concert Hall), and others representing thousands of workers (the Manitoba Teachers’ Society has about 15,000 members).
With our pooled resources the PDPS won its constitutional challenge to the PSSA at Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, in a ruling that characterized the legislation as “draconian.” Justice McKelvey, in her ruling, said:
“The PSSA has left no room for a meaningful collective bargaining process on issues of crucial importance to union memberships. There is no ability to promote representations and have them considered on a good faith basis. The right to meaningfully associate in pursuit of a fundamental and important workplace goal has been denied.”
However, the provincial government is appealing that ruling and arguments from both sides will be heard this summer. The results of the appeal process may not be available for months, and even then the government might be able to appeal to a higher court, extending our wait-time even longer -- potentially for years.
In the meantime, the government’s treatment of Manitoba’s teachers, the IBEW, the MGEU, and other public sector unions suggests that they have little intention of changing their approach to collective bargaining in the public sector.
What are we doing to overcome these barriers?
As in past rounds of bargaining, many of the gains made at the table require a lot of organizing, including preparations for job action. This year we have to prepare on two fronts -- for the work we have to do with the employer at the bargaining table, and for direct and sustained pressure on the provincial government itself.
To begin this work, we have joined together with other provincial faculty associations via the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations (MOFA) and have started work on a province-wide political campaign supporting higher education.
We have begun working to prepare every one of our colleagues to meet with MLAs and apply pressure to individual members of the government and Board of Governors. This will unfold over the next few months.
We will also be providing members with opportunities to educate themselves, so that they will be able to respond to public inquiries, students, the over-the-fence conversations with neighbours, etc.
What can we do right now?
Fill out the bargaining survey. The Collective Agreement Committee(CAC) has recently approved the updated bargaining survey. It should be in your inbox starting in mid-May. Filling it out is important -- it’ll help the CAC develop bargaining proposals.
Come to the Annual General Meeting. The AGM has been rescheduled for May 25 @ 2pm and will be held online. At that meeting there will be discussions of bargaining strategy, organizing strategies, and more.
- “The current situation, which had seen salaries negatively impacted by inflation over the last five years, had been created over a period of time and had been accelerated over the last number of years. President Benarroch said he requested flexibility from the Minister of Finance in response to the Province’s mandate, but appeals to the Province were not successful.” See page 5 here: https://umanitoba.ca/governance/sites/governance/files/2021-01/2020_12_02_Senate%20Minutes.pdf
A Brief on Process
As we continue our preparations for bargaining 2021, here’s a refresher on how the bargaining process works.
Typically, the process begins as soon as a Collective Agreement (CA) is signed: UMFA Staff and Grievance Officers keep track of various issues that arise as the new Agreement is put to use. These issues, along with those raised at constituency meetings, are discussed by the Collective Agreement Committee (CAC). The CAC combines all this information with data gathered through a bargaining survey to create bargaining proposals. Those proposals are then debated by the Board of Representatives, which recommends the proposals to Members, who further debate them at a General Meeting.
With proposals discussed and approved, the Bargaining Team then presents them to the Employer. The Employer also presents their proposals. As negotiations unfold, the Bargaining Team (BT) reports back to the CAC, which debates possible changes to proposals and gives the BT direction on what to communicate to the Employer.
Depending on what happens at the bargaining table, the Executive organizes further constituency meetings, General Meetings, a strike vote, and marches, rallies, and other actions that support the Bargaining Team in their efforts. Once a tentative agreement is reached, the Executive also organizes a ratification vote. If Members think the deal is acceptable, a ‘yes’ vote turns the tentative deal into a new Collective Agreement.
Who Runs the Process?
Bargaining is nothing if not a collective effort. The Bargaining Team (BT) is one of the most visible bodies that partakes in the bargaining process, and is made up of a Chief Negotiator, a number of Members (five this time), each appointed by UMFA’s Board of Representatives. UMFA’s legal staff are also on the BT. The Bargaining Team presents proposals to the Employer and reports to the Collective Agreement Committee on the day-to-day goings-on of bargaining.
While the Collective Agreement Committee (CAC) isn’t as visible as the Executive Council or the Bargaining Team, it plays an important role in the process: Composed of the Executive, the BT, and other UMFA Members appointed by the Board of Representatives, it solicits information from Members, formulates proposals, and develops bargaining strategy. Staff’s expertise and advice are also sought. The Bargaining Team reports back to the CAC regularly during bargaining, and the CAC modifies proposals and strategy as negotiations develop.
During, and even before, bargaining, The Executive Council (Exec) is responsible for developing timelines and ensuring that they’re met, preparing and releasing communications to the Membership and the media (with the help of staff and the Communications Committee), liaising with other unions and the labour movement, and anything else that needs to be done. It’s composed of a President and Vice President elected by the UMFA Membership, the immediate Past President, and five to seven Members appointed by the Board of Reps on the recommendation of the President.
UMFA’s Board of Representatives (the Board, or BoR) is made up of elected representatives from all over the UM. They are responsible for organizing constituency meetings and communicating with their colleagues about bargaining and sharing that information with the Board and the Executive. Board reps are an important link between the BT, Exec, the CAC, and the Membership as a whole, and have a hand in mobilization, among other things.
However, the highest decision making body at UMFA is a General Meeting, constituted when all Members of UMFA are called to discuss specific topics. In the context of collective bargaining, Special General Meetings (SGMs) are called to discuss proposals, overall strategy, and strike votes. It’s also at a Special General Meeting that a tentative deal is discussed, and a ratification vote taken.
Together, these various bodies make the bargaining process what it is: a dialogue between Members about what the workplace should look like and how to make it a reality.
We Make U of M Happen!