Two of the four presidential candidates in this year’s University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections are calling for the elimination or reduction of staff positions at the union.
Human resources at the UTSU comprise $982,300 of the 2016–2017 operating budget. This is much greater than any other single expenditure category and almost five times the amount allocated for club and project subsidies, which make up $199,000 of this year’s budget.
There are eight staff members at the UTSU, holding positions ranging from Health and Dental Plan Coordinator to Graphic Designer.
Of those eight, seven of the staff at the union are represented by a union, CUPE 1281, which represents workers at non-profit organizations in Ontario — many of which are student unions at various universities. The Executive Director, Tka Pinnock, is not represented by the union.
Candidates contemplate staff changes
Mathias Memmel is the current Vice-President Internal and Services at the UTSU and the presidential candidate with the Demand Better UofT slate. “It’s quite clear that if the UTSU were to continue on its current path, we would face serious cash flow issues, certainly within five years it would become really burdensome,” Memmel told The Varsity.
He explained that one of his priorities in fixing this problem is to reduce the number of staff positions at the union. “If elected,” he said, “I intend to eliminate three of them right off the bat.”
Memmel suggests filling any required staff positions in the office with student jobs.
Micah Ryu is the presidential candidate for Reboot UofT, which is running on a platform of cutting costs and eliminating executive positions. Ryu told The Varsity that “the thing that’s working the least, frankly, is the staff system.”
Aside from the costs associated with the union staff, Ryu also says that, “from what I can tell as an outsider there’s a hostility between the staff and the execs.”
Ryu said that “the staff’s presence at the UTSU office — I believe firmly that it greatens the divide between the student union and the students.”
Reboot’s platform states that it “will refuse to fill any staff position that are vacant or become vacant during [their] time in office, with the possible exceptions of the Executive Director and Health & Dental Plan Coordinator positions.” They also plan to “restructure the union such that the roles [they] wish to eliminate become obsolete.”
CUPE 1281 President Orion Keresztesi declined to comment on Memmel and Ryu’s promises, telling The Varsity that the union “[does] not think it is appropriate for [them to] comment on the platforms of UTSU candidates.”
He did say, however, that “we are confident that the members of UTSU will elect an executive board that respects workers’ rights and the collective bargaining process.”
“Staff at the UTSU work hard everyday to serve the needs of the students at the University of Toronto, and to support the success of UTSU executive board,” he continued.
We The Students presidential candidate Andre Fast told The Varsity that if elected, he would have discussions with the Vice-President Internal and Services regarding staff and did not commit to a specific course of action. John Sweeney, who is running for President with Whomst’d’ve UofT, admitted to not being familiar with the issue.
The Varsity was unable to reach independent presidential candidate Joshua Hands for comment on this issue.
Collective agreement negotiations
The collective agreement between the UTSU and the staff outlines the broad rights of the workers, distinguishes between permanent full-time, contract, and replacement positions and stipulates that no work that falls under the purview of staff work shall be outsourced or contracted out. Casual, part-time, and term workers are not represented by the union.
Full-time staff work 8-hour days and 40-hour weeks during the regular year. There is a step down to a four-day work week during the summer period, defined as May 15 to July 31.
Article 14, subsection 3 of the collective agreement appears particularly relevant to Memmel and Ryu’s commitments. Both candidates are committed to leaving vacant jobs empty, but the agreement makes it clear that in the case of a vacancy “the Union and the Employer must mutually agree to amend any job description, or portion thereof.”
Even if the UTSU lays off staff workers, Article 15, subsection 3 of the collective agreement outlines the costs incurred from layoffs, such as having to pay full coverage of the employee’s group insurance plan.
There is also a full severance pay package in place for employees who get laid off, ranging from two weeks’ pay for employees with under a year of service to 34 weeks for employees with 21 years or more of service. The Member Services Coordinator, Terri Nikolaevsky, has been working at the UTSU since March 1994, making her eligible for the full 34 weeks of severance pay if her position is nixed in January 2018.
Before any radical changes to the makeup of UTSU staff can occur, the contract between the UTSU and CUPE 1281 on behalf of the staff workers has to be renegotiated.
The contract is up for renegotiation in January 2018, and collective bargaining procedures will then take place.
“Collective bargaining is a legally defined negotiation, and any changes to the collective agreement require agreement from both the Employer and the Union,” Keresztesi noted.
Memmel believes that in the UTSU’s history of collective bargaining, “The UTSU has negotiated these contracts with its own interests in mind, and not the interests of students.
“We’re going to take a very clear, hardline approach. I’m not willing to accept an agreement that is not in the best interest of students,” Memmel concluded.
Reboot’s platform says that it “will approach the collective bargaining as principled ideologues, who will not compromise in pursuing our goal of ensuring that the UTSU can no longer serve as a permanent carrier for CUPE 1281, the union that the UTSU staff are members of.”
Collective bargaining is neither a simple process nor receptive to reforms that challenge union jobs. The very nature of the union is to protect the jobs Memmel and Ryu aim to cut.
“When the two parties cannot come to agreement, considerable disruption can occur including expensive third-party arbitration and strikes or lockouts,” Keresztesi says. “We look forward to bargaining in good faith with the incoming UTSU executive.”