November 12, 2021 - No. 106


Workers Fight for Respect and
Improved Living Standards Under
the Most Difficult Conditions

University of Manitoba Faculty Strike to Defend Their Rights and Public Education


Workers Fight for Respect and Improved Living Standards Under the Most Difficult Conditions

Four thousand public sector workers employed by the Government of Nunavut (GN), whose collective agreement expired at the end of September 2018, are fighting for their rights and dignity and for improved living standards for all, under the most difficult conditions. These workers are members of the close to 5,000-strong Nunavut Employees Union (NEU). Members include custodians, social workers, payroll officers and nurses.

The NEU is a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the largest union of federal employees. Some of these workers' main demands are significant wage increases, improved benefits, an increase in the Nunavut Northern Allowance (NNA), support for mental health and paid leave for victims of domestic violence. The NNA is a benefit paid to government employees designed to make up for the difference in the cost of living between Nunavut and designated southern centres and to equalize the compensation of employees across Nunavut who face different economic conditions. There has been no increase in the NNA for 12 years, the union notes.

Nunavut public sector workers have been on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic. They have worked throughout COVID-19 outbreaks without a raise during that time.

"It's causing a lot of mental health issues, and stress and anxiety on families and people who are working really hard and making hard decisions like whether they'll pay the bills or put food on the table," NEU President Jason Rochon told the press.

One of the main problems facing the Nunavut workers is that close to 90 per cent of the territorial government's budget comes from federal transfers, with the remainder coming from individual and corporate taxation. Nunavut has a population of around 35,000 people, approximately 85 per cent of whom are Inuit, and the revenues from taxation are very limited. This plus the federal transfers are inadequate to meet the needs of the people. The cost of living in Nunavut is one of the highest in the country. Nunavut is the largest and northernmost territory of Canada and the fifth largest administrative division in the world. The people of Nunavut live in 25 communities spread across this vast territory, with the largest number, close to 8,000, residing in the capital Iqaluit. Traveling from one community to another is mainly by air, and most food and other supplies arrive by plane or by boat during the summer.

The housing crisis in Nunavut is acute. Residents pay the highest rents in the country. According to a report published by PSAC North in 2017, close to 50 per cent of the population live in inadequate housing, and 57 per cent live in public housing, compared to six per cent in the rest of Canada. PSAC identifies the housing crisis as a major contributing factor to high rates of poverty, food insecurity and suicide.

Difficult Negotiation

The GN workers are demanding that the territorial government stand with them in improving their living standards. So far, their demand has not been met with success. There are no negotiations at present.

In November 2019, the GN reduced its offer on the NNA by half, while sticking to a wage offer well below inflation. The negotiation committee felt it had no choice but to file a statement of claim with the Nunavut Court of Justice alleging bad faith bargaining, a violation of the Public Service Act. The statement of claim was filed in November 2019 and has not yet been heard, which interrupted negotiations. The GN later said that the reduction of its offer on the NNA was actually a calculation error that would be remedied under mediation, but negotiations have been on hold ever since. The union made it clear that it would withdraw its bad faith bargaining claim if the government came back to the table and presented an offer acceptable to the workers.

Water Crisis in Iqaluit

A state of emergency was declared in Iqaluit in the second week of October when a high concentration of fuel was found contaminating the tank that supplies water to the city. Since then, the state of emergency has been extended to the end of November. The NEU represents most City of Iqaluit employees (their collective agreement is separate from that of the GN and was recently renewed) who are working tirelessly to resolve the situation through investigation, testing, repairs, and the distribution of water.

Under the state of emergency, people are not allowed to drink tap water or use it for cooking, even if it is boiled; residents have had to pay exorbitant prices for bottled water. Many patients had to travel outside the territory for treatment for several weeks because hospital staff are not able to wash their hands or sterilize instruments. This situation is taking a heavy toll on the community's physical and mental health.

This is not the first time Iqaluit has had to deal with contaminated water. This crisis, the people of Nunavut are saying, in addition to three water crises over the past four years, reveal a chronic problem. Northern communities are affected by aging and poor infrastructure causing water emergencies, and they continue to struggle with water quality and supply issues.

"This crisis is the result of decades of broken promises and ongoing inequalities that Inuit and Indigenous communities face," said Lorraine Rousseau, PSAC North Regional Executive Vice-President, in a press release. "Why haven't governments learned from past mistakes and taken the necessary steps to protect our water supplies and the safety of our communities?" she asks.

In a conversation with Workers' Forum, NEU President Jason Rochon said: "We are trying to get the government back to the table. We have members who have been without a contract for three years and we know that the cost of living has gone up so much. This is causing so much stress, especially with COVID-19. We have people who have to pay insane amounts for water, which is a basic human right. Workers must be compensated fairly. They have to be treated with respect. We cannot accept having children going to school hungry. The food insecurity is very high here. And there have not been increases in the Nunavut Northern Allowance for 12 years. Politicians know that and employers know that. They have to step up to the plate and treat workers with respect."

He added that workers do not want to go on strike but a strike vote will be held if there is no progress in getting an offer workers deem acceptable.

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University of Manitoba Faculty Strike to Defend
Their Rights and Public Education

Professors, instructors and librarians, over 1,200 members of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA), have been on strike since November 2 after negotiations between the association and the university administration reached an impasse. The main issue in dispute is increased salaries needed to recruit and retain staff whose salaries have been frozen since 2016, with the result that, according to Statistics Canada data, the university has the second-lowest average salaries for full-time teaching staff out of the 15 largest research-intensive universities in Canada.

Striking workers picket Manitoba legislature building in Winnipeg, November 9, 2021.

Earlier this year the Manitoba Court of Appeal upheld a lower court's ruling that the government acted unlawfully in its interventions in bargaining at the university in 2016. However, the UMFA reports that the university has yet to compensate UMFA members for wage increases that were unlawfully removed from the bargaining table.

The UMFA reports that the University of Manitoba President Michael Benarroch, after confirming that salaries have fallen behind by eight per cent compared to inflation alone, "admitted that the government has once again instructed him to offer salary increases that mimic the Public Services Sustainability Act."

The Manitoba government introduced the Public Services Sustainability Act in 2017. It was passed by the legislature and, although never enacted, has been used to claim a "mandate" to impose wage restrictions on public sector workers. The wage caps are zero per cent in each of the first two years of a four-year agreement, 0.75 per cent in the third year and one per cent in the fourth year. In 2020, a Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled that the act violated the right of 120,000 public sector union members to meaningful collective bargaining. The government appealed and the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned the lower court decision in October. The Partnership to Defend Public Services, a group of unions representing over 100,000 Manitoba workers, will be seeking leave from the Supreme Court of Canada to appeal.

In an information bulletin prior to the strike the UMFA informed students:

"The current round of bargaining involves many issues including equity, diversity and inclusion, childcare, intellectual property, and more. The most important issue is salary. UMFA salaries have been frozen since 2016, as part of an austerity agenda embodied in the still-unproclaimed Public Services Sustainability Act (PSSA), which was used to freeze salaries in the public sector. While the legislation was used to justify freezes for UMFA members, other public-sector workers, like Nurses and Hydro workers, were able to achieve settlements that were greater than those outlined in the PSSA."

The strike has the support of the University of Manitoba Students Union, several student groups on the campus, the Manitoba Nurses' Union and other unions and the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

Underfunding and low salaries at the university impact not only the university community but the society as a whole. A health care rally was organized at the Manitoba Legislature on November 9 by instructors in the College of Nursing, whose 54 faculty are members of the UMFA. The same day a letter signed by 40 of the nursing faculty was delivered to Audrey Gordon, Minister of Health and Seniors Care and Minister of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery which outlined the need to create "a salary scale that will attract new faculty and retain current faculty who can step up to the challenge of preparing nurses for a health care system in crisis due to the nursing shortage, a pandemic, and increasing interpersonal violence and moral distress on the frontline." The letter pointed out that in the past two years 15 per cent of nursing faculty had retired or left the college and that nursing instructors and assistant professors earn salaries that are less than general duty nurses. They drew attention to the effect of the strike on "all workforce sectors, in particular, the health care sector" where a prolonged strike "will delay the graduation of approximately 110 nursing students in Spring 2022, adding more strain to the severe nursing shortage that exists in Manitoba."

In the health care sector the shortages of trained personnel have been brought most vividly to public attention over the course of the pandemic, but it is not just health care that is affected. Government interference to impose wages that do not even keep up with the cost of living increase the difficulty of recruitment and retention for public services, including educators, with far-reaching impact. The demand of the UMFA for an end to government interference is just and has broad support.

With their strike the University of Manitoba faculty are defending their rights and those of their students, pointing out that their working conditions are students' learning conditions. They are also standing up and fighting for the public education system upon which the whole society depends.

(Photos: MFL, UMFA)

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