by Errol Black
On Saturday, November 19, 2011, a Brandon Sun headline read:
Well apparently they were wrong.
Labour and Immigration Minister Jennifer Howard’s decision to force striking faculty members to vote on the university’s “last offer” came as a surprise to everyone this morning. Only a few days ago her colleague Erin Selby, the Minister of Advanced Education, was quoted by the Brandon Sun as saying “this is a difficult time for students and their families…We understand their frustration. They want to be back in the classroom. We want to see students back in the classroom as well. The best way for this to come to a resolution would be for both sides to continue negotiation. That’s the best resolution that we can see…”
Drew Caldwell, MLA Brandon East, took the same position, stating his support for his government’s stance in favour of collective bargaining… “The principle of free collective bargaining is very important in a civil society and we as a government have been providing conciliation, mediation and urging the parties to come to an agreement…”
On Tuesday November 22, 2011, Brandon woke up to a very different headline:
In a letter to Brandon University President Deborah Poff and BUFA president Joe Dolecki, Minister Howard wrote “I have reviewed the circumstances of the dispute and the negative effect of the work stoppage on the students of Brandon University and the city of Brandon… I am of the opinion that a vote of the employees in (BUFA) to accept or reject the last offer of the employer, respecting all matters remaining in dispute between the parties, is in the public interest.”
So what happened between November 19 to November 21 to cause the government to so drastically change their position?
With the benefit of hindsight it appears that the decision was not as drastic as it would appear. The government seems to have been working on a strategy to force an end to the strike for the past few weeks.
In previous blogs we reported that Brandon University’s Board and Administration and their lawyer, Grant Mitchell, have been seeking to undermine BUFA by stalling the collective bargaining process and forcing the outstanding issues to binding arbitration.
On October 12, the University asked for the appointment of a conciliator. A conciliator was appointed, but because of the University’s reluctance to negotiate, the effort was abandoned on October 21 (an outcome confirmed by the Minister of Labour in response to a question raised during Question Period on November 1).
BUFA then requested the appointment of a mediator. The Minister appointed Michael Werier, who on November 9th reported to the Minister that attempts at mediation had failed. In his report, Werier indicated that he had accepted the University’s argument and recommended that outstanding issues go to binding arbitration. The Minister recommended to the parties that they accept Werier’s recommendation. The University accepted, not surprising since this was the outcome they wanted from the onset. BUFA declined, stating that they would seek to secure an agreement through collective bargaining.
Members of Cabinet also liked the idea of having the matter go to arbitration. On November 9, Premier Selinger told a Winnipeg radio talk show host that the government would like the association [BUFA] to consider binding arbitration to help resolve the situation. And in the November,19 story in which Erin Selby said the province would stay out of the dispute, she let slip that she thought “[t]he best thing would be for both parties to agree to go to arbitration.”
The employer’s final offer will now go to a Manitoba Labour Board supervised vote of the BUFA membership – which could be as early as Thursday.
If it turns out that the BUFA membership rejects the employer’s offer, the Minister has signaled that she will clear the way for quick approval of a request for binding arbitration that will be made by Grant Mitchell on December 12.
This is a sad and unnecessary ending to a sad situation. It could have been avoided if the government had respected the institution of free collective bargaining and forced the employer to accept the fact that there would be no intervention to force a settlement through binding arbitration. Progress was being made. The difference on wages was reduced to $220,000 over a four-year agreement. Although the University backed down on an earlier agreement to follow the back to work protocol used in the 2008 strike, progress was being made on this outstanding issue as well.
As stated by BUFA president Joe Dolecki ““It is a sad day for free collective bargaining in this province”.
Errol Black is a CCPA Board member.