CUPE 3261: “U of T must do better”

By Zyad Osman, Staff Writer

CUPE 3261 members holding a demonstration during the university’s board of directors meeting | October 27th 2022

On the 7th of October, CUPE 3261 (the union representing service staff across the University of Toronto’s three campuses), passed a landslide 94% vote in favour of potential strike action. While this resolution does not mean that the union is going on strike, it means that the leaders are empowered to launch a strike if the negotiations continue to fail. The union delivered an open letter on the 27th of October to the Governing Council of the University of Toronto, following the University’s rejection of several of their proposals to hire more in-house support staff. The communication called upon the Governing Council to cooperate with the union, stating “…if we are forced to strike, we will.” This move was preceded by the union’s “Good Jobs UofT” campaign, which ran throughout September and October in an attempt to raise awareness for the issue among staff, students, and faculty alike.

UofT and Outsourcing

The union’s grievances emerged last August, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the university replaced a number of in-house custodial jobs with contract workers from private companies, citing the need for a solution to the increase in COVID-19-related cleaning work. CUPE president Allan James responded in a news release that “They [the university] claim that they are performing COVID-related cleaning work in over 20 buildings now, but in reality, they are replacing jobs that are being cut indefinitely for penny-pinching savings.” The savings James was referring to were part of a larger drive by the university to cut back on costs during the pandemic since, according to a UofT press release from March of last year, “At the time, the potential impact of the pandemic on student enrolment and budgets was unknown”.

The union argued that “For-profit cleaning companies save labour costs because workers are paid at least $7/hour LESS than CUPE 3261 workers.” Privatized and contracted service jobs, they argued, are generally less likely to pay a living wage, provide sufficient pensions, and give workers the same number of sick days as their in-house counterparts.

In March of 2021, the university did attempt to provide a raise to its custodial and service staff, however this amount had to be capped at a one percent increase in order to be compliant with Ontario Bill 124 — a piece of legislation introduced by the Ford government in 2019 that limits the maximum yearly raise that can be provided to public sector workers. Unions such as CUPE have been pushing back against the constitutionality of this bill in a drawn-out legal battle, arguing that it harms workers’ right to collective bargaining as per the Charter of Rights.

CUPE Action Elsewhere

The UofT public worker’s threats of strike come after 55,000 Ontario education workers did the same in response to the Ford government’s refusal to renegotiate their salaries, opting instead to force them into a 4 year-long contract, at the start of November. The contract further inflamed anger among education workers as it would have had them waive their right to negotiate salaries or strike during that period. 

Much like what CUPE argues Bill 124 does, critics argue that any contract that prevents workers from negotiating salaries or striking would be a breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However the Ford government utilised what is known as the ‘Notwithstanding clause’ which allows provincial governments to bypass the charter for a 5-year period of time. This same clause was used by the Québec provincial government in 2018 to pass the controversial Bill 21 which prevents public employees from displaying ‘religious symbols’ while at work including Hijabs — which are mandatory for muslim women. 

Neither the University Administration nor its Board of Directors have released a statement regarding the union’s calls for ending privatization so far and it remains to be seen what the university will do to address these demands, if at all.

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