By James Wilt
Since November 2, more than 1,200 members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA)—including professors, librarians, lecturers, and instructors—have been on strike following a strong 85 percent strike mandate in mid-October. This strike comes only five years after the last by UMFA in 2016.
The main issue is salaries. Since 2016, inflation has eroded 8 percent of wages and faculty salaries are now the second-lowest of 15 research universities in Canada, massively undermining recruitment and retention. Despite posting a $94 million surplus in 2020-21 following several years of tuition hikes, the University of Manitoba administration continues to lowball workers with below-inflation proposed increases over a two-year agreement: 1.25 percent in year one and 1.5 percent in year two.
An offer tabled by UMFA on November 4 proposed a three-year agreement with 2 percent increases in year one and two and a 2.5 percent increase in year three. The administration rejected the offer and reverted to its original proposal that triggered the strike. In addition, the Administration has lied that its offer was 9.5 percent over two years and has locked students out from the university’s online education system.
The dispute is taking place within the context of the provincial public sector wage freeze legislation of 2017, which was recently upheld on appeal. While wage freeze never actually became law, contract negotiations have been repeatedly undercut by provincial interference. For example, in response to faculty receiving a small compensation adjustment for online teaching during COVID-19, the provincial government retaliated by cutting University of Manitoba operating funding for 2021-22 by $5.9 million (1.75 percent).
As a consequence UMFA is targeting the provincial government as well as the University of Manitoba administration, and has faced down several instances of vehicular attacks and police intimidation, too. There have been pickets outside the Legislature, an attempted sit-in at Premier Heather Stefanson’s constituency office, and mass leafleting of residences in ridings of high-ranking provincial MLAs. UMFA has also highlighted the role of poor compensation in impeding the province’s supposed goal of rectifying the catastrophic nursing shortage which is a consequence of several years of crushing austerity cuts to healthcare.
From the very beginning of the strike, a strong contingent of university students have been organizing under the newly-formed banner of Students Support UMFA, playing a major role in educating other students, countering employer disinformation, and getting people out to actions. Rankandfile.ca spoke with Travis Hunnie, a second year fine arts student and organizer with Students Supporting UMFA, about the group’s work.
How did Students Supporting UMFA come into being?
I heard that when UMFA went on strike in 2016, there had been a similar group. I wanted to make sure that there was some group that was going to be clearly vocal in support of UMFA because the information that was being given to students was directly from the administration. I knew that there were a lot of students that would support UMFA, but also would just be supportive of collective action in general. I wanted to make sure there was a centralized group for that.
I also wanted to make sure that there was a group that was going to keep students informed, and I didn’t trust the University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) to be able to do that, due to their relationships with admin [university administration – the employer]. I wanted to make sure there was a group that could act independently and effectively.
Why is it important that students are organizing independently in support of the strike?
There’s less likelihood that student organizers would get caught up in too much bureaucracy when they’re working independently, and that’s important because we have a really short timeframe to work with.
We’ve seen a lot of talk about students being used as pawns by the administration and since they are downstream of any of these major issues, students will bear the brunt of whatever happens. They should recognize that they have the power to voice their support for UMFA, which puts pressure on the university administration and the government.
What have been some of the highlights for the group so far?
We’ve become a source of information for a lot of students. If we didn’t exist, students would be only be getting information from mass emails that are sent by admin. There have been a couple of instances where the things that admin has sent out in emails has been false or a spin on something. We’ve been critical of that stuff.
Right when the strike started, we had been slowly building a social media following: we were at about 300 followers on Instagram. On the day of the strike, we doubled our followers and a week later we are up to 1,800. It’s nice, because that was a goal of ours: to just keep each other informed.
Another thing we’ve been doing is helping UMFA on the picket lines: just being there but also some people have been delivering snacks and things like that. We participated in a sit-in at Heather Stefanson’s constituency office, which ended up being more of a picket because of Heather closing her office and disconnecting the phone. That was something where it was a small group within Students Supporting UMFA being more focused on the direct action.
Those are the main highlights: keeping people informed, presence on the picket line, and those kind of actions like sit-ins. We have more stuff like that planned.
Also, really early on—a week or so before the strike—there had still been silence from UMSU: our student union that’s quite centrist. Some of us in the group are members of the board of directors on UMSU so we were able to pass an emergency motion that pressured UMSU to make a statement and ally themselves with UMFA, and also our group. That was a really big win.
The motion was drafted by a bunch of people from the [student solidarity] group and it was a group effort to make that happen.
It’s been interesting to see the ways that they have not adhered to that motion, but that’s another discussion. Part of our work going forward will be to push for accountability in such groups that came out as allies.
There’s also been a lot of work to get statements of support from various student groups and organizations. What’s the process behind that?
We have working groups: a few people working on outreach were contacting student groups at the school and asking if they would release a statement.
A lot of times, these groups might have already released some sort of statement in support of UMFA, but we asked them to sign onto our joint statement as well. It was over 20 groups that ended up being on that joint statement, and more groups have been subsequently coming forward to add their names to it. That’s a powerful thing.
Many organizers from Students Supporting UMFA are members of other student councils, so inside our own councils we have been doing work to up the ante.
Can you talk about the new speaker series?
Someone who had been doing some organizing in the 2016 strike told us about their teach-ins that they did and we wanted to run with that idea.
Basically, the way I see it is that the strike is a major event but it’s also a really great opportunity for people who don’t necessarily care about labour issues—or issues in areas like politics, economics, or gender studies that would tie into the strike—to expand their knowledge and range of interests.
We’re getting professors and educators to do talks based around ideas surrounding the strike, rooted in their own research and work, so that students can take this moment to shift their perspectives.
For example, on Thursday we had a talk by David Camfield—a labour studies professor—focused on capitalism. That’s an example where people hear the word capitalism a lot: students my age throw it around on Twitter a lot and stuff. But they might not understand how capitalism ties so deeply with what’s going on on our campus, the neoliberalizing of universities in Canada, and beyond.
It’s a nice chance for people—since we’re not in class—to tune in and learn a little bit more.
We’re getting a range of professors from different faculties and areas of research to get lots of different angles on the issue. I’m really excited about the teach-ins: I think it’s going to be a good thing to look back on.
How is it going so far with bringing students into the group and organizing actions?
It’s awesome. Obviously there are a lot of people who have a stake in this, whether they would see themselves as being politically active or not.
A lot of the time, people get involved in the group just to keep up to date and have their voices heard in a meaningful way.
The group is really diverse as far as people’s backgrounds, skills, and interests, so organizing has been going great because we each have a lot of things to offer that we might not typically have an outlet for. Now, all of a sudden, we can be really effective organizers because of the group, and have real impact on campus.
What’s it like bringing in new people who may not have organizing experience or may be new to this type of organizing?
I’d say it’s been good but there have been lessons learned. Just on a logistical level, a lot of our organizing has been going on in [online messaging platform] Discord. Because it’s different than meeting in person where you can get a sense of who people are, we wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page before being able to make decisions and get involved. So early on, we drafted a Basis of Unity as a group. New people would need to agree to that to have access to all of our channels on Discord.
It’s kind of tricky in this short timeframe, with all of us who don’t have organizing experience, to be able to make sure that the group doesn’t get distracted or disrupted. Everyone has to be on the same page.
It’s been rewarding to see new people join with little-to-no experience, and watch them find their places to make contributions to the group.
It’s all possible because we all want each other to succeed, and we encourage each other to try new things. People who joined out of sheer curiosity are now facilitating meetings, speaking to media, speaking at rallies, and more.
On social media, there’s a lot of UMFA members express gratitude for the work that Students Supporting UMFA is doing. How has it been working with or alongside UMFA?
It’s been great because—and this may be obvious—they’re just really glad that we’re doing what we’re doing. They trust us to help out and are on board with all the things we’re doing.
It’s good, too, to have that close connection because when we know about things ahead of time we can have input and offer our skills.
Based on the administration’s response to UMFA’s latest counter-offer, it sounds like this strike might continue for a long while: potentially into the winter. What does it look like from an organizational point of view looking forward in terms of retaining momentum and involvement by students?
That’s definitely going to be a challenge. One thing that’s happening with the group is people are settling into their roles in a way.
A lot of the time, it’s a core group of maybe 20 to 25 people that have their hands in a lot of different aspects of the organizing. But at this point, people are getting used to what they’re really good at and what they like to do in smaller working groups.
As the strike goes and we get more people on board, it’s going to be about finding out what people are actually passionate about—aside from just supporting UMFA—to get that momentum so that people are still willing to put in all these sleepless days and nights of work.
We have to make sure we don’t burnout either. We’re hoping to bring in more people that don’t necessarily want to offer all their time and energy to that type of work but that would like to just show their support in general.
You’ve already mentioned a few reflections but are there other lessons or things that you’d offer to other people wanting to do similar work?
Just trust your peers to do good things. And trust yourself.
Much of the work that’s been done so far has only been possible because each of us is willing to take risks, try new things, and learn from each other.
We’ve also learned that sometimes it’s necessary to ask for help. We’ve been lucky to have support from the Canadian Federation of Students – Manitoba. When we can ask advice of the organizers from CFS–MB, or even some of our educators that have years of organizing experience, it helps us resist that impulse to try to reinvent the wheel.
Any final thoughts?
No matter what happens with the strike itself, which is obviously our main focus, at the end of the day there are now upwards of 50 students in our group that have organizing experience and probably a better understanding of labour issues.
More students are going to feel empowered to use their voice and collective power the next time that the ruling class is trying to screw with them.
Photo credit: Olivia Macdonald Mager
Photo description: University of Manitoba students march to join a large pro-UMFA rally on campus on Nov. 5, 2021.