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Classes disrupted as picket lines go up at Manitoba’s largest university

Professors at the University of Manitoba left their classrooms for the picket line Tuesday, creating uncertainty for 29,000 students at the province's largest university.

The strike by the 1,200-member faculty association came one day after the union rejected a contract counter-offer from the school and one day before conciliation talks were scheduled to start.

"We'll be at conciliation and we're hopeful ... that that will produce results, but picket lines will remain up during the conciliation process," faculty association president Mark Hudson said.

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The faculty's last collective agreement expired in March. Mediated talks broke down last week over issues including wages, workload and performance assessments.

The university also is hoping conciliation will lead to a deal, but has already offered compromises, said John Kearsey, vice-president of external relations.

"We want to get back to the table and really understand in more detail what it is (faculty members) want from us, because I'm not sure we're really clear about that at this point," Kearsey said.

"We've been negotiating since March of this year ... and so it's (about) getting to the end point. And we feel like we're getting there with each discussion, but it's just never enough."

Hundreds of classes were still held Tuesday. Most were taught by sessional instructors who are not represented by the faculty union. Both sides said some union members were going to continue to teach for at least one day.

The university has offered a seven per cent salary increase over four years, while the association is seeking a 6.9 per cent raise in one year.

The Manitoba government told the university last month that it would like to see a zero per cent increase in the coming year to help the province battle its deficit. Premier Brian Pallister has not ruled out seeking similar wage freezes across the public sector.

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While Kearsey said the government's request was not uncommon, Hudson called it a bomb that was dropped in the middle of contract talks. Hudson said even if the union accepts a wage freeze, the university has not shown enough flexibility on non-monetary issues.

Pallister said Tuesday his government will not try to force an end to the strike.

"We have to respect the process, and I do."

Under Manitoba labour law, either side can trigger binding arbitration if the strike drags on for 60 days or more. Hudson said he is hoping it won't come to that.

"I'm still hopeful that we won't be here when that option becomes something that we can consider."

Faculty at the university last went on strike in 2001. Brandon University was hit with a faculty strike in 2011 that lasted 45 days.

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