UMFA strike in its second week as U of M refuses to budge

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Solidarity forever. Jimmy Emerson via Flickr

Students largely supportive

On Monday, November 8, after seven days of striking, members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, which represents 1170 full-time staff, and their supporters gathered outside the Winnipeg constituency office of premier Heather Stefanson with the goal of occupying the office until Stefanson would agree to meet with them, as she has so far been unresponsive to UMFA’s requests to engage. Stefanson avoided them by going to Brandon.

UMFA has been on strike since November 1, and they’ve been without a collective bargaining agreement since March 31, 2021. Salaries at UM are among the second lowest in the country in comparison to similar research-focused universities, in part because of their last experience hammering out a collective bargaining agreement with the university.

The last time UMFA picketed the university was almost exactly five years ago, beginning on November 1, 2016, and lasting until a new CBA was ratified on November 21. UMFA members returned to teaching the following day with a contract that gave them zero percent salary increases in exchange for substantial governance changes, including a collegial model to determine workloads, privacy and confidentiality improvements, a guarantee that standards and processes for tenure and promotions will be set by faculty, and increased administrative support for faculty to free up more time for research and class preparation.

“Students rely on us every day in classrooms, libraries, and labs. We want the University of Manitoba to continue being a great university. That means attracting great instructors, professors and librarians, and keeping the talent we have,” said UMFA President Orvie Dingwall in October. “It’s hard to attract new staff and keep existing staff when they can work elsewhere for fewer hours and more money.”

Underfunding programming and underpaying faculty in comparison to other universities makes it harder for institutions to attract and retain Black and Indigenous faculty members, also making it difficult for faculty to do the ground-breaking, sometimes courageous, and often extremely important work that they were hired to do in the first place.

UMFA tabled an offer on Thursday that they hope will end the strike. According to a press release from UMFA, that proposal “includes two years of 2 per cent increases and the third year at 2.5 per cent, or a Cost of Living Adjustment. The proposal also includes increases to recruitment and retention adjustments over the term of the agreement. Finally, the proposal includes raising the salaries of Instructors to be in line with librarians, which would address compensation and retention issues.”

What is happening at UMFA is not unique to that university and should be seen instead as a symptom of the growing neoliberalization of higher education, in which universities are seen as businesses to be run by a burgeoning class of administrators, many of whom have not seen the inside of a classroom since they got their degrees. These administrators attempt to play the market, cutting programs that they think provide too few returns (largely humanities departments) and investing in faculties where there’s currently lots of money and excitement. They tend to invest heavily in attracting international students who are charged exponentially more in fees that don’t equal the services that they are given. Whatever can be monetized is monetized, whatever can be cut is cut, and as much as possible these universities begin to rely upon adjunct labour for teaching, an inhumanely treated, poorly compensated underclass who does all the work of educating undergraduates for none of the glory.

As universities begin to function more as businesses to be administered as opposed to places of learning to be funded, staffed, and nurtured, we will continue to see situations where faculty must go on strike – disrupting students’ educations – in order to ensure that their jobs will not only pay existing faculty what they’re worth, but also that they will continue to be there when the next generation of apprentice scholars is ready to move into tenure track positions. It’s important and necessary for students at universities to wholeheartedly support job actions by tenured faculty, as many U of M students seem to be doing. Strikes are as much for the future as they are for the present, and a successful strike for a University Faculty Association is a success for students and for future faculty members, some of whom may yet be students.

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