After a month of negotiations, the University of Toronto and its largest union, the United Steelworkers’ local 1998 (USW), have finally reached a contract agreement. It was ratified Friday by a 94 per cent vote that took place on all three campuses.

The Steelworkers, who represents approximately 3,700 administration and IT personnel, underwent its “most difficult” bargaining session ever, according to union President Allison Dubarry.

In a letter published on the Steeldrum, USW’s newsletter, Dubarry held Premier Dalton McGuinty’s wage restraint policy and the university’s solvency relief plea responsible for the arduous rounds of negotiations.

“We faced a government intent on freezing our compensation for two years. We faced an employer intent on obtaining the increased pension contributions it needed to qualify for the government’s pension solvency relief program,” she wrote.

To help offset a record provincial deficit of about $20 billion, McGuinty’s wage restraint program initiates a two-year freeze on the wages of non-unionized public sector employees. The initiative also works with unions and employers to introduce the freeze on unionized private workers’ wages who are primarily unaffected by the policy.

The motion for solvency relief, on the other hand, is a product of the pension plan’s $1 billion shortfall due to poor university investments. Unable to balance its deficit, U of T sought to qualify for Ontario’s university solvency relief program, giving it up to 13 years to stabilize its pension plan. To be able to make gradual payments, the university has to freeze — or possibly decrease — worker compensation.

“All it really is is scapegoating employees,” said Dubarry. “It’s this whole thing where it’s easy to target working people than to target those who actually caused the problems.”

Despite these issues, U of T spokesperson Laurie Stephens issued a statement prior to the agreement saying that the university is “committed to negotiating a fair and responsible renewal collective agreement.”

The new three-year contract will instate a wage increase of 1.75 per cent in year one, two per cent in year two and 2.25 per cent in year three but will also see higher pension contributions of 1.8–2.4 per cent.

With the agreement, USW has secured benefit improvements and the creation of non-economic policies like the reestablishment of the Early Retirement Bridge Benefit, language improvements on job security, protection from bullying and harassment and a yearly contribution of $50,000 from U of T to the Steelworkers’ charity, Humanity Fund.

But the risk for a strike remains. Another round of negotiations are scheduled later this month involving the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 1230 and 3261.