Solid strike wins gains at the University of Manitoba

By David Camfield

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) went on strike on November 1 and returned to work with a new contract on November 22. UMFA is the union for around 1200 workers: people classified as professors, most librarians, and instructors (teaching staff whose contracts are open-ended or longer than a year; teachers and librarians hired on short-term contracts are members of CUPE 3909).

Student support for the faculty strike (source).

What made this strike different from most recent strikes in Canada is that it was mainly an attempt to win new collective agreement rights rather than fend off employer demands for concessions or raise wages. It was a response to changes happening at U of M, whose top managers are at the forefront of the general trend of reorganizing universities along corporate lines. For this reason the strike has implications not just for U of M but across the post-secondary education sector.

It was also significant for Manitoba labour. For some time strikes in the province have been even less frequent than they’ve been elsewhere in Canada. This was the first strike by more than a small group of workers since a Tory provincial government was elected in April 2016.

New budget model

At U of M the budgets of the units (faculties and schools) made up of the academic departments and programs responsible for teaching and research have been cut by over 10% in recent years. As a result, class sizes have grown and students have fewer courses to choose from, which can lead to students having to stay in university longer to complete their degree requirements. There have been job cuts for members of CUPE 3909 and for academic support staff (members of AESES, a small unaffiliated Winnipeg union). UMFA members who retire or leave U of M are often not replaced. Workloads are increasing, especially for instructors and librarians.

A new budget model that’s being developed will pit units against each other in competition for funding (a representative of Huron Consulting, the firm hired to help design the system, dubbed units “entrepreneurs”). New quantitative ways of measuring performance are central to this model. These metrics will be used to rank units. A lot of UMFA members have rightly been worried about management using metrics in annual performance evaluations as well as in decisions about granting tenure (permanent status) and promotion.

UMFA response

In response to this situation, UMFA members adopted a package of bargaining proposals that included bold proactive demands to limit the use of performance indicators and give members more influence on decisions about workloads (which are determined at the unit level) and on the guidelines for tenure and promotion. UMFA also demanded that instructors and librarians get the same level of job security as other UMFA members.

university-of-manitoba-faculty-strikeAlthough pay increases were part of the package too, by the time the strike started salaries weren’t on the table. This was because the provincial government made it clear that it expected U of M — like other publicly-funded institutions — to follow a new wage freeze policy (UMFA has filed an unfair labour practice charge to the Manitoba Labour Board accusing the employer of bad faith bargaining because of how it withdrew its previously-tabled financial offer).

Bargaining in 2013

In October 2013 a last-minute deal averted an UMFA strike. Unresolved issues were sent to arbitration. The outcome of that process revealed to members that they couldn’t expect an arbitrator to grant them stronger rights. The employer’s lawyer said that if UMFA members had wanted those they should have gone on strike — a point UMFA leaders made sure to repeat to members.

The 2013 bargaining round also revealed to some activists how poorly prepared the union was for a strike and highlighted some internal problems. By the time the strike began, UMFA was much better prepared than it had been in 2013, thanks to the hard work of some activists and a new staffer.

Stronger union, wider support

Three weeks on the picket lines made several things clear. One is just how upset most members are about what’s happening at U of M and how willing they are to be part of a union fight for demands that address their concerns. That’s why participation in the strike was stronger than some expected. A significant minority of people scabbed (perhaps 30% of the members not on leave) but this was probably fewer than the employer was counting on.


Another lesson, as UMFA President Mark Hudson put it, is that the strike gave members “a sharpened understanding of our collective capacities” to fight for a better university.

There was more support for the strike — and less hostility to it — from students and people in Winnipeg more generally than anyone predicted. With salaries out of the picture, few people complained about highly-paid professors going on strike. UMFA’s communications team skillfully made the case that what the union was fighting for was in the interests of students as well as UMFA members and contrasted the union’s priorities with those of the U of M administration.

There’s been almost no left-wing student activism at U of M for many years. Fortunately, efforts by the revived U of M Student Action Network and other students boosted strikers’ morale and even pushed the council of the U of M Students’ Union (UMSU) to pass a motion in support of UMFA (no doubt to the horror of some on UMSU’s executive).

What it takes

The strike also demonstrated just how determined upper management is to oppose union demands that could limit its power to reorganize U of M. Three weeks on the picket lines won contract language that gives UMFA members more influence over how teaching loads are determined and on policies for tenure and promotion.

The new agreement also contains protection against relying on performance metrics rather than a broader assessment of quality and quantity when evaluating members’ research work. A jointly-appointed committee will evaluate the use of research metrics and produce a report by the end of 2017; if its report recommends stronger protection, this will be automatically added to the collective agreement. This falls far short of UMFA’s ambitious initial demand that performance indicators “not make up any part of any system of governance, review, or resource allocation” (UMFA Bargaining Newsletter #6, October 2016). A letter that expires at the end of 2018 promises that no librarians or instructors will be laid off.

It took a solid strike to win these modest gains. To win more, UMFA and its supporters would have had to apply greater pressure on U of M than they were able to this time. It’s hard to judge how likely it is that enough members would have stayed on strike long enough to win more. Greater disruption of “business as usual” on campus and/or more damage to U of M’s public image would also have put more pressure on management.

Solidarity makes a difference
It’s worth pointing out that the disruptive impact of the strike on U of M was reduced by scabbing. It was also affected by the fact that other unionized workers on campus were not able to do much to put pressure on the employer. The support shown by members of CUPE 3909, AESES and Unifor 3007 (non-academic support staff) for the strike was much appreciated by UMFA members. But these unions don’t have any language in their contracts that protects their right not to cross another union’s picket lines, and solidarity-minded militants in them were in no position to organize job action to support UMFA in defiance of management and the law. There was no trace of anything like the stay-away from teaching by many contract faculty members of CUPE 3903 that happened during the eight-week York University Faculty Association strike in 1997 or the refusal by fellow CUPE members to cross the picket lines of Brock University ESL instructors in 2012.

Now that the strike is over there’s an opportunity that hasn’t existed since UMFA’s victorious 1995 strike to renew the union. Many members were inspired by the experience of solidarity. Finding ways for people who’ve just tasted union power to get involved will strengthen UMFA for the fights ahead. So will getting rid of rules and habits that are obstacles to democratic, member-driven unionism. Yet another cut to units’ budgets is threatened for 2017, and the new one-year contract will be up at end of next March.

David Camfield teaches Labour Studies and Sociology at the University of Manitoba and is the author of Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement

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