POLITICS
11/10/2011 01:41 EST | Updated 01/10/2012 05:12 EST

Manitoba Opposition urges legislation to return Brandon University profs to work

BRANDON, Man. - Manitoba's Conservative leader is calling on the NDP to recall the legislature and immediately introduce legislation that would force striking professors at Brandon University back to work.

Hugh McFadyen said Premier Greg Selinger should recall the legislature so a back-to-work order can be quickly passed. The legislature is not scheduled to return until next year.

"Our concern is with the students," McFadyen said Thursday. "This strike has now reached the 30-day mark. There doesn't seem to be any reasonable prospect of it ending through the voluntary agreement of the parties and the students are really the victims."

The strike at Brandon University is now the longest at a Manitoba post-secondary institution. There have been no classes for 3,000 students since members of the university's faculty association walked off the job Oct. 12.

The main issue is wages and a mediator has recommended binding arbitration, but that could take weeks. While McFadyen said professors do have a right to strike, he said they've made their point.

"The right to strike is always balanced by the rights of others in the community. What we're saying is that students have a right to get an education as well," he said. "There is growing concern that an entire semester's worth of work and credits may be lost . . . so it's a severe impact for students and, obviously every day that goes by, adds to the severity of that impact."

No government minister was made available to answer questions about the strike or demands to recall the legislature.

Rachel Morgan, government spokeswoman, said in a statement that the NDP respects the Labour Relations Act and encourages both sides to agree to arbitration to end the strike.

"We know this has been a stressful and frustrating time for students. Our priority throughout the strike has been getting students back into the classroom," she said in an email. "We have been in close contact with Brandon University administration and have been assured they are actively working on plans to save the term. We believe saving this term is essential and are pleased that Brandon University is making this a priority."

Patience for the strike seems to be waning in Brandon. Angry parents met Wednesday night and demanded students get their tuition back.

"I think we've been let down by the administration, by the professors and by the government," said parent Sonja Harper. "They just got voted in. They always say that youth are our future and right now for Brandon, the students really have a very bleak future."

Rick Chrest, who helped organize Wednesday's meeting, said parents will continue to make themselves heard if the strike does not end soon.

"We'll be keeping the (parent) rallies alive. We'll be back on Monday in front of Brandon University making sure that they know we care about the students and we're not going to let this die."

Grant Mitchell, the university's chief negotiator, said a bargaining session held Wednesday afternoon resulted in some movement and talks will resume. But faculty association spokesman Bill Paton told a Brandon radio station that both sides are about two per cent apart on wages and no headway was made.

"Basically, we're still as we were. The last offer was ours on Sunday last," he said.

Scott Lamont, the university's vice-president of finance, told the parents that tuition refunds are a possibility. "We are saying refunds are probably going to be offered. Where it will not be necessary is when the student decides to finish the term."

Winnipeg-based mediator Michael Werier has recommended binding arbitration to settle the strike, but that can't happen for another 30 days. Werier has said the two sides are too far apart on wages and neither one is budging.

Mitchell said the administration accepts the mediator's report and agrees to binding arbitration. He said if both sides are headed toward a deadline where arbitration can be imposed without a negotiated settlement, it may be worth considering the option sooner than later.

The faculty association, which did not have representatives at the meeting, has said no decision has been made by the union on whether to accept binding arbitration.

Earlier Wednesday, Premier Greg Selinger told a Winnipeg radio talk show that the government would like the association to consider binding arbitration to help resolve the situation.