The University of Manitoba and the union that represents its academics have begun arbitration proceedings with a shared goal of making salaries more competitive with Canada’s other top research schools and addressing recruitment and retention.
The parties resumed efforts to conclude a three-year collective agreement between 2021-22 and 2023-24 on Friday. Toronto-based arbitrator William Kaplan is scheduled to oversee virtual meetings on general annual wage increase proposals throughout the weekend.
U of M and the faculty association (UMFA) agreed to enter binding arbitration late last year to end a 35-day strike.
Professors, instructors and librarians set up picket lines on Nov. 2, citing their employer’s low wages among the U15 — a collective of major research-intensive universities — and as a result, staffing shortages and turnover challenges at Manitoba’s largest post-secondary institute.
“Unless we start making advancements… we’re not going to be able to recruit and retain members, which is going to negatively affect the equality of education that students are able to get here in Manitoba,” said Orvie Dingwall, president of UMFA.
Statistics Canada data show the 2020-21 median assistant professor salary at the U of M was the lowest of the U15, a group that includes schools ranging from Queen’s University to the University of Saskatchewan. Associate professors earned the second-lowest amount on the list, with Laval University at the back of the pack. As for full professors, the median annual sum was only higher than the University of Montreal and Laval last year.
While administration and academics made some progress in autumn on wage schedule adjustments, including increasing salary floors, ceiling and increments, they remain in conflict over annual salary hikes.
Following numerous bargaining sessions and mediation attempts, the parties decided upon a neutral third-party arbitrator with a mutual goal for U of M to achieve “reasonable advancement” towards the 25th salary percentile of the U15. It will be up to Kaplan to define what that means.
(Academics argued in favour of adjusting wages in line with average U15 salaries on Friday so all university employee earnings are accounted for, while the U of M’s legal team suggested medians are more appropriate because averages can be swayed by outliers.)
UMFA representatives have tabled a proposal to increase wages annually by 3.3 per cent, 3.6 per cent and 2.5 per cent over the contract to meet that goal.
The university’s plan, which suggests structural changes to the salary schedule that have already been decided upon amount to a four per cent increase throughout the three-year period, includes annual raises of 1.25 in the first year, followed by 1.50 and 1.75, respectively.
“You have an important and… unique task,” said faculty association lawyer Garth Smorang, during a presentation to the arbitrator Friday. “This will be the first opportunity since 2013 for these parties to enter into a collective agreement unaffected by government interference.”
Smorang spoke at length about the tense labour relations between the U of M and UMFA in recent years, owing to the government’s unconstitutional interference in 2016 contract talks and the introduction of now-defunct public-sector wage-freeze legislation, the Public Services Sustainability Act (Bill 28).
The lawyer noted U of M educators received a 1.75 per cent raise between 2016 and 2020 while the salaries of their University of Winnipeg colleagues increased by seven per cent — a result of UMFA negotiations taking place shortly before Bill 28 was tabled.
Throughout the fall 2021 term strike, UMFA repeatedly called on the Progressive Conservative government to withdraw a more recent university wage mandate that professors claimed was preventing them from reaching an agreement with their employer.
The Tory government maintained that public-sector bargaining mandates are not uncommon for stewards of taxpayer money — a point the university’s representatives echoed on Friday.
Adrian Frost, U of M’s lawyer, urged the arbitrator to disregard both historical and current provincial mandates, as well as a 2016 labour dispute between the parties that he noted was addressed by the Manitoba Labour Board.
“(This) award will hopefully reset the focus of the relationship between the parties, and that focus will be on the present and future rather than the past, as it has continued to be, even in this proceeding,” Frost said.
In their pitch, the university’s legal team discussed COVID-19 pandemic cost pressures and the affordability of Winnipeg in comparison to other cities in which U15 peers are located.
The arbitrator must take into account the university’s ability to pay. A decision is expected within 30 days of this weekend’s proceedings.
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press