By Merli Tamtik

At the University of Manitoba, a strike is on. Starting November 1, all faculty members, librarians and full time instructors belonging to the University of Manitoba Faculty Union (UMFA) are striking for a fair and reasonable collective agreement. Classes have been cancelled; all advising and administrative tasks are put on hold. Even accessing the university’s learning management system is seen as crossing the picket line.

Issues at Hand

The collective agreement between UMFA and the university expired in March 2016. Ongoing negotiations for a new collective agreement have not led to any significant outcomes. The collective bargaining focused initially around fair wages and salary increases, as the University of Manitoba (UofM) has one of the lowest salary ranks among tenure track professors of the U15 universities in Canada

Salary negotiations were put aside a few days ago when the new conservative provincial government took a strong stance, recommending UMFA members to return to work and asking for a one year extension to existing contracts at 0% in order to stabilize public sector compensation levels. That was seen as a direct interference to the university’s autonomy and the constitutionally protected process of collective bargaining.

The University of Manitoba’s President Dr. David Barnard and UMFA President Dr. Mark Hudson issued a joint communication to the UofM community about this dramatic development. Provincial intrusion enhanced the conflict between parties and eventually led to an impasse in negotiations, despite the fact that a third-party mediator was pulled in to reconcile the differences.

With money off the table, non-monetary issues have taken centre stage. Gradually increasing workloads, larger class enrolments, strict performance indicators to measure suitability for tenure and increasing management power are some of the core bargaining topics.

These issues are not new, surprising or unfamiliar to any faculty member working in post-secondary education across Canada. However, they raise worrying questions about the overall quality of education students receive. It was the expiration of the collective agreement that provided a small window of opportunity for UofM faculty members to voice those concerns and create greater awareness among the public.

What’s It Really Like At the Picket Line?

The night before the strike, everyone was assigned picket line duties at several locations around the main entrance roads to the university. I was scheduled for an early morning shift from 7-9 am. This shift was critical as it was the first shift of the first strike day and there was a lot of media coverage. It was also the time people were driving to work and potentially had the most impact in spreading the word about the issues at hand.

I was grateful that it wasn’t raining (like the day before) and still November with pretty mild temperatures (+5C) for Winnipeg. Everybody was given picket signs and we lined up on both sides of the road. When our picket captain, a professor in biological sciences, hollered with his deep bass voice “LINE ON!”, we marched into the road with the signs, walking in circles. That stopped the morning traffic for a few minutes and flyers were passed around. On the captain’s mark “LINE OFF!”, we backed up to the pedestrian path, waved to the cars and let passing traffic through. Security cars were present and observing developments.

It was crucial not to block the roads for too long, as then the traffic would have been reorganized by bypassing us, which would have made the picket line pointless. The reactions from the public were divided. Most people were really sympathetic, for example honking their horns or giving thumbs up to show their support. Others were upset, driving by with stony faces.

Unexpectedly, garbage was thrown at me from a rolled-down car window. My colleagues started shouting Assault! Assault! and the drivers’ license plate was recorded by UMFA members. Here’s ‘Friendly Manitoba’ for you, I thought. Yet I quickly had to reassess my feelings after a random car passed by handing us a canister of coffee, hot chocolate and two bags of donuts.

Working Conditions

img_5358While regulations, policies and agreements are very important and provide the general framework for one’s work, it is really the people that create and shape the distinct culture and climate at a university.

My experiences with working at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, have been only positive since joining in January 2016. The collegiality and support among faculty members makes it a truly great place to be. As soon as I started work, I was informally assigned faculty mentors who have provided me continuous support in my new role. We recently hired another assistant professor and the two of us benefit from regular monthly meetings with our mentor. This is a great opportunity to discuss a variety of topics, get strategic institution-specific advice and calm our anxieties as we start building our tenure dossiers.

Teaching assignments are made on a ‘last come, first choice’ basis in our area group. When the time to assign courses came, the newest and least experienced faculty (me!) was given the first choice, to make sure I had the opportunity to teach courses I feel most comfortable with and not getting the ‘leftover’ courses nobody wants to teach.

Relationships with the administration have also been positive for me. I was surprised to receive an invitation to meet personally with the Vice-Provost, Academic. Meetings were scheduled with Associate Vice-Presidents Research and Partnerships, so that I could introduce my research to them and they could talk about different services and grant opportunities available by the university. Gaining federal grants is not easy and UofM has provided support that helps to build one’s research agenda locally to then become successful in federal grant competitions. We all met with the Ethics Coordinator, as the rules are more rigid and extensive here.

It is those little things that count the most. For example, all of our recent hires in the Faculty are newcomers hailing from out of the province. In order to make us more welcome, our Dean invited us to his home for a dinner one weekend. I was also invited to attend the University’s Homecoming Dinner to network and meet new people. As we are still exploring the city and the neighbourhoods of Winnipeg, our faculty secretaries have made it their personal mission to take us out to lunch once a month each time to a different place, so we can really start enjoying the city through its delicious food.

Final Remarks

As the strike continues, it is not only the faculty members that are going to feel the pressures of strike. The students find themselves in difficult situations. Many need final course credits to graduate from their programs. International students are in danger of losing their full-time student status if the strike becomes a lengthy one. It could prove to make a serious dent on the university’s reputation.

Yet my own graduate students have been extremely understanding. Most support the strike, sending me ‘Hang in there!’ messages and in solidarity choosing not to cross the picket line. The negotiations, supported by provincially assigned conciliator, continue this week. Until then, the picket line stays strong.

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