Province’s prints all over labour fiasco

February 5, 2018

Winnipeg Free Press Editorial – February 3, 2018

So, who’s going to write the cheque?

The Manitoba Labour Board ruled this week that the University of Manitoba engaged in unfair labour practices during bargaining with its faculty association (UMFA) in 2016.

The independent tribunal said U of M bargained in bad faith when it followed an order from the Pallister government not to tell UMFA that the province was imposing a one-year wage freeze on public-sector workers as part of its ongoing cost-cutting campaign.

As a result of conduct that “went far beyond hard bargaining,” the board ordered the U of M to pay each affected faculty member up to $2,000 — a penalty that could reach $2.4 million — and provide a written apology to UMFA and its members.

UMFA officials were predictably pleased by the labour board’s ruling.

“They unfairly hid important information from us until the last minute,” UMFA president Janet Morrill said. “We will continue to protest the government’s infringement on collective bargaining rights.”

During the 2016 negotiation, the university had tabled an offer of a seven per cent pay increase over four years, but the province intervened by informing the university a wage freeze would be imposed. The university testified last summer before the board that the government made open and implied threats of consequences — including the possibility of withholding operating grants and appointing board governors who would impose other punitive measures — if the university did not follow the order to conceal the province’s freeze directive from UMFA.

What’s as noteworthy as the wrongdoing identified by the labour board ruling, however, are the various things with which the tribunal did not take issue.

The labour board rejected UMFA’s assertion that the unfair labour practices were the cause of a three-week strike that resulted from the breakdown of negotiations, because UMFA was aware of the wage freeze before striking for improved working conditions.

The board also declined to order compensation for UMFA for lost wages and unpaid work performed to help students get caught up after the strike. For UMFA, not exactly a complete vindication.

How the budget-crunched university will come up with as much as $2.4 million to settle the penalty remains to be seen. But here’s a suggestion: send an invoice to the provincial government.

While the ruling Progressive Conservatives were not a named party in the labour board hearing, the province’s meddling in the bargaining process — and in particular, its inexplicable secrecy demand, accompanied by threats — is directly responsible for the fiasco that followed.

There’s probably no one in Manitoba, of any political inclination, who didn’t expect the Pallister government to turn its austerity-agenda sights toward organized labour after being handed its majority mandate. That a wage freeze was going to be imposed on public-sector unions came as a surprise to absolutely no one.

So why the province demanded secrecy as it insinuated its wage-freeze directive into the U of M’s bargaining process is a puzzlement. And, in the end, it wasn’t the freeze itself that ran afoul of the labour board; it was the university’s decision to follow orders (or, perhaps, acquiesce to threats) by keeping the order secret.

In the aftermath of the ruling, Finance Minister Cameron Friesen was quick to observe that “government is not a party before the labour board and the board has made no orders against government in its ruling.”

One can only wonder how he managed to say it with a straight face.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board