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Back-to-class ballot question

·4 min read

INTERRUPTED courses and research at the University of Manitoba are anticipated to resume today — should academics approve a tentative deal that would end a 35-day strike.

Over the weekend, the university and its faculty association reached a preliminary agreement that could see hundreds of employees return to work today after more than a month of disruptions.

The union’s executive council has unanimously recommended its members cast ballots in favour of the deal during a secret e-ballot late Monday.

“What’s included in this agreement is definitely a positive next step to move us forward to improving recruitment and retention. Five years of wage freezes has really stalled us and we’ve fallen behind,” said union president Orvie Dingwall, who represents around 1,200 professors, instructors and librarians.

The results of the vote are expected to be released early today. Polls closed at 11:30 p.m. on Monday night.

According to a mass union email, the agreement includes deferring wage negotiation to binding arbitration so a neutral third party can determine general scale increases for 2021-22, 2022-23, and 2023-24.

Both sides would agree on an arbitrator, who will ignore government mandates and be guided by “reasonable advancement toward” the 25th percentile in the U15 (Group of Canadian Research Universities), per the email.

Other key features of the deal that are not subject to arbitration include: various adjustments to the salary table; the creation of a committee that will study technology in teaching at U of M; and the addition of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to the list of UMFA holidays.

Dingwall said the union is prepared to run pickets tomorrow, but many professors are readying for a return to work. If a deal is not ratified, the strike could continue until the end of this month, when it would end and arbitration would automatically begin under provincial labour laws.

Hundreds of faculty members stopped teaching and checking emails when the job action began on Nov. 2. Almost six in 10 courses — upwards of 3,600 lectures, labs and other sections — remain affected by the strike.

U of M’s academic calendar has been adjusted four times to address implications on instruction. The latest iteration means the end of the fall term will be sandwiched between the holiday break, there will be a 72-hour-long exam period, and the winter reading week is now condensed into a single day.

“We kind of want to strike — as students — if we’re not getting a reading week. That’s just ridiculous,” said Owen Dunnigan, a fourth-year fine arts student.

The 22-year-old has mixed feelings about the prospect of classes resuming this week. On one hand, Dunnigan is relieved the strike could come to an end. On the other hand, he said there is “the frustration of feeling like a pawn.”

“It’s just frustrating, feeling like I’m investing in the school instead of being a student because they’re taking my money while saying :they don’t have any money,” he added.

Being an international student from Minnesota, Dunnigan made travel plans to return home this weekend, based on the original school calendar. He will likely have to participate in remote learning in some form, without access to studio materials, to finish the term.

In a message on the university’s website, president and vice-chancellor Michael Benarroch acknowledged the strike “has been especially hard” on students.

“As we resume classes and interrupted research, we are committed to providing you with the support you need during this transition,” wrote Benarroch.

“I know this strike has impacted you personally and affected your perceptions of our institution. We are committed to providing a rapid transition back to class so that you can successfully complete the academic year.”

The ongoing labour dispute can be traced back to years of stagnant salaries, aside from annual performance increases, because of the Progressive Conservative government’s now defunct public sector wage freeze legislation.

Professors have been voicing concerns about how U of M’s low salary scale in comparison to other established research universities is affecting staffing.

U of M has indicated its goal is to reach an agreement that addresses recruitment and retention issues while supporting quality education and sustainability.

A provincial wage mandate, which the union categorizes as interference, has also caused tension between the parties. The government has insisted, however, that such a mandate is standard practice for a steward of public funds.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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