By Errol Black
Deveryn Ross’ column on the Brandon University strike in the November 24 Winnipeg Free Press (“Administration, province will wear this one“), represents a significant advance on his first column on this issue October 13, 2011(“BU strike needs adult supervision“).
That first article was published the day after the strike started on October 12. In this article, Ross cites some of the factors contributing to the strike and the likelihood that it could last for a very long time. Unfortunately, Ross wasn’t able to cobble the pieces together in a way that produced a coherent analysis. On the contrary, he ended up trivializing the issues and blaming equally the University Administration and BUFA for the strike: “While they battle over picayune issues such as whether faculty members will get free gym memberships, they are apparently oblivious to the harm they are doing to a university that already has more than enough problems.”
He concluded that “[I]n the interests of both the university and the students, the situation requires an adult to step in and take charge.” Specifically, he proposed that Labour Minister Jennifer Howard emulate Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt and “impose a solution,” a recommendation that seemed to reflect disdain for the democratic rights of workers and their right to protect those rights through fair, collective bargaining.
Over the past six or so weeks, however, Ross has been doing research on the strike and he’s changed his tune. He is now digging closer to where the bone is buried. He now understands that the BU administration went into collective bargaining with a well-defined strategy which was contracted out to Grant Mitchell for execution. The plan was a simple one. Stall, delay, refuse to bargain, confuse the issues, and force BUFA into taking a strike vote.
As so often happens in these situations, the grand plan hatched by the University very quickly unraveled. The strike vote was taken. Support for strike action was around 70%. The University apparently interpreted this result to mean that BUFA would retreat and seek to negotiate a settlement. But BUFA didn’t retreat and a strike was called. Then the University thought they could exploit the divisions in the Union by simply inviting faculty members back to work, thinking presumably that the people who voted against strike action would be eager to cross the picket line. However, solidarity prevailed and the strike continued.
The University has stuck to its original strategy since the strike started. Stall, delay, refuse to bargain and confuse the issues. The University stuck to this strategy through conciliation and mediation, pushing the line that the Manitoba government had put limits on how much they could raise wages and pleading for the government to impose binding arbitration. As well, they fed a lot of nonsense to the media (especially the print media) that was intended to, as Ross clarifies, discredit BUFA members and put the blame for the strike on them.
It is unfortunate that Ross’ October 13 column was not nearly as clear-sighted as today’s; a lot of the misguided attitudes we heard during the early days of the strike were likely inspired by his earlier piece. Nonetheless, Ross clears up a lot of misconceptions today: he concludes that the blame for the strike and the failure to get a negotiated agreement rests squarely on the University. It is important to have this on the record. It is also important to have on the record the fact that the only people who were concerned about the situation of the students (apart from the students themselves) were the members of BUFA.
Ross also blames the government for what has transpired. “The Selinger government doesn’t escape culpability in this debacle. It dictated BU’s initial salary stance and refused to take reasonable steps to pre-empt the strike.” This claim about the government dictating BU’s initial salary stance is what the University and their lawyer told everyone. It is my understanding that this claim was bogus. We should endeavour to find out where the truth is.
The other question that we need to address is: how did it come to pass that all three universities employed the same lawyer, Grant Mitchell, to negotiate with their faculty unions to achieve a uniform outcome on wages?
Hopefully Mr. Ross hasn’t quit digging around.
Errol Black is a CCPA Board Member.