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Interview / Robert Chernomas

Interview / Robert Chernomas

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association was on strike for 20 days in November 2016. At the helm of their negotiating team for the seventh time was economics professor Robert Chernomas. Now president of the Manitoba Organization of Faculty Associations, Chernomas talked with the Bulletin about the strike.

What spurred UMFA members to action?
Members were angry and frustrated about increasing teaching loads, so much so that they felt they didn’t have adequate time to spend teaching, or for research or for service and administrative duties. The administration had made significant cuts to the faculties over a three-year period and members were facing larger classes, while there was more teaching for some and an ever growing administrivia load. As the most poorly compensated academic staff of the 13 medical/doctoral universities for which we had data, we joked that we aspired to be No. 11. We carefully monitored the U of M’s finances and it was clear the cuts were not based on real economic scarcity, but rather choices on the part of the administration to expand their role for advertising and marketing and spend operating funds on ever more capital projects, or what I referred to as their ‘edifice complex.’

What did the strike achieve?
When the administration acquiesced to a message — not legislation — from Brian Pallister’s PC government to impose a one-year agreement with 0% on salaries and refused to provide governance language to deal with workload, we went on strike. We needed a 20-day strike to stop the degradation of our teaching, research and service roles, and accepted a one-year 0% deal because it gave us a collegial model for determining workloads, similar to the University of Saskatchewan approach, in which deans collaborate with their faculty to set workloads. We also fought for the only contract language in Canada, to my knowledge, around limitations on the use of performance metrics, and additionally received protection of academics’ rights over tenure and promotion.

You spoke in March at the CUFA-BC conference on university governance in the 21st century. What did you take away from the meetings?
We were told at the conference by a representative of the Canadian Association of University Business Officers that it is the role of boards of governors to make fiscal decisions for universities and the role of senates to make academic decisions. The role of faculty associations is to fall in line as employees in support of the enterprise. The academics who spoke at the conference confirmed UMFA’s view that boards of governors, administrators and senates are not protecting the fiscal integrity of our universities nor collegial governance or academic freedom. It is CAUT, along with provincial associations, faculty unions, student organizations and other campus unions that are left to protect the integrity of teaching, research and service.

As a negotiator, how do you motivate your members?
Primarily by listening carefully to their concerns. They motivate me. We had 35 constituency meetings, two surveys, numerous meetings with our board of representatives, and general membership meetings. We also communicated with members electronically on a regular basis. When we go into bargaining I tell our members that we have to meet the administration head on, it’s really about power and our success depends on how many of them are behind the bargaining team. It is only when we are clear that there’s a voice in support of academic freedom, fair salaries and collegial governance that the administration will really begin to pay attention. This always requires strike votes and occasionally a strike to move us closer to the front of the line in terms of the administration’s priorities.

What’s next for UMFA members?
We will be bargaining again shortly in an environment dominated by a government committed to austerity, a strategy that has created unemployment and gutted public services. The Pallister government has legislated zero to salary increases over the next four years while enabling significant tuition increases. We received a very low university grant when the budget was delivered last month. Income-based access to the university, student debt and a falling share of public funding will be the result. Solidarity with students, other unions and the community at large will be necessary to reverse these trends. Solidarity among our members will be required to ensure academic standards and collegial governance is maintained. 

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