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USMC staff vote to unionize

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A group of about 20 faculty and library workers at the University of St. Michael’s College voted to unionize and are awaiting ratification this week.

Although the vast majority of USMC staff are unionized, the group of 20 is an exception due to technicalities in the college’s arrangements with U of T. Michael Attridge, assistant professor in the Faculty of Theology, said the group didn’t feel a need to unionize until the university chose to apply separate standards for the first time.

In May 1974, St. Michael’s, Trinity, and Victoria College — formally titled as universities — were partially incorporated as federated colleges within the Faculty of Arts and Science through a Memorandum of Understanding.

The memorandum comprised most college staff, but excluded St. Michael’s librarians and archivists, and its Faculty of Theology, which had been incorporated separately into the Toronto School of Theology in April 1970. As a result, about 20 staff were paid not by U of T, but by USMC.

The college respected an informal good faith agreement, whereby these non-unionized staff would receive the same salaries and compensation as agreed by the unionized staff.
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In 2005 the provincial University of St. Michael’s College Act changed the college’s governing structure from an internal board, composed of collegium (e.g. division heads and faculty), to the more common model of an external board, consisting of lawyers and business professionals.

“There are lots of benefits to that. That’s the way a university in the twenty-first century works,” said Attridge. “But they didn’t know librarians and theology faculty personally; that minimized our voice.”

Attridge said this lack of a voice became apparent last November.

In March 2010, provincial legislation known as the Restraint Act proposed a two-year freeze in compensation for all non-unionized public service workers. While the 20 staff had an informal bargaining agreement with UTFA, the association didn’t represent them as a recognized trade union under the Labour Relations Act.

An arbitration agreement between the U of T Faculty Association and university administration came out last November, in which a 2.25 per cent across-the-board salary increase was negotiated.

Instead of following its two-decade course of action by granting the same increases as negotiated by the UTFA, Attridge says that USMC told staff four weeks later that they chose to follow the Restraint Act, thus implementing a pay freeze.

“There was no consultation on implementing the financial Restraint Act. In my opinion, the issue is not the 2.25 per cent. We weren’t even consulted and that’s a major departure from how we understood our relationship,” said Attridge. “They hadn’t consulted us on these opinions. We have no memorandum of agreement that they have to consult. It’s only a good faith agreement.

“This exposes a larger issue: we have no say in how the university works. We’re a small group; we’re only about 20. It would not have been an enormous process for [them] to sit down and ask ‘how do you want to talk about this?’”

The group of 20 had an information meeting in late January, followed by a February 17 certification vote asking UTFA to represent them as a trade union. Attridge claimed the vote was unanimous.

The group will have a hearing with Ontario Labour Relations Board this week. In the meantime, UTFA continues to represent the 20 through a non-certified bargaining agreement.

“Faculty and librarians have an enormous amount of appreciation for the University of St. Michael’s College,” said Attridge. “We don’t have the same salaries and benefits as many other universities. People stay here because they love the institution. It actually moved me, how much appreciation [they have] for the university.”

Attridge said the group considered a second option, a memorandum of agreement, but the accord would limit necessary negotiations to compensation, excluding areas like workload.

“This is only bizarre at U of T; no one would normally blink at this,” said Attridge, citing a study that found that 79 per cent of Canadian university faculty were unionized by 2004. He also noted that unionization is consistent with Catholic Church teachings.

Attridge noted that these kinds of labour relations are atypical in a university context.

“Typical unions involve labour organizing against management. In an academic community, these lines of labour and management don’t exist. Many faculty have been appointed to an administrative term for five years. Some go on [but] you could finish and go back to being a regular faculty member.

“There’s no sense of animosity on the part of faculty and librarians toward administration. That has underscored the collegiality for many of us.”

University administration, which tends to decline interview requests surrounding ongoing legal or labour issues, emailed a statement to The Varsity. “The University of St. Michael’s College has advised us that a majority of the eligible St. Michael’s employees who cast ballots voted in favour of the University of Toronto Faculty Association’s application to represent them as a trade union under the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

“If the Ontario Labour Relations Board confirms this vote and certifies UTFA as the bargaining agent, UTFA and the University of St. Michael’s College will negotiate a collective agreement covering the terms and conditions of employment for this group of approximately 20 professors of theology, librarians, and archivists.”