The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario has posted an open letter template on their website calling on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to reverse its decision to eliminate two full-time staff positions. The letter, released October 20, is addressed to UTSU President Mathias Memmel and UTSU Vice-President Internal Daman Singh and is intended for members of the U of T community to send to the UTSU.
The UTSU’s decision to lay off Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez last spring was met with protests and criticism. Critics have argued that the decision was unfair and would negatively impact student services. The UTSU also eliminated the position of Financial Coordinator, which has been unoccupied since August 2016.
“The labour movement will unite to hold the UTSU accountable for these unnecessary and unfair cuts,” reads the letter. “We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and call on you to do the right thing and bring back Vita and Maria.”
Orion Keresztesi, President of CUPE Local 1281, the union representing Carlino and Galvez, called the UTSU’s decision to cut the positions “illegal” and in defiance of the collective agreement CUPE 1281 has with the UTSU.
CUPE 1281 is still working to get the positions restored. Keresztesi said that CUPE 1281 will file grievances against the UTSU, which will be heard by a third-party arbitrator, if Carlino and Galvez are not given back their positions before the arbitration dates. CUPE 1281 and the UTSU are currently in the process of setting the first arbitration date. Keresztesi is “pretty confident that all the positions will be reinstated.”
“Unfortunately, that process is long, and it will be expensive for us and the UTSU,” said Keresztesi, who asked CUPE Ontario to release the open letter in support of Carlino and Galvez.
“I think [the open letter template] is getting the message out that the UTSU has clearly become anti-worker, and from what I’m hearing and seeing, I would even say a right-wing employer,” said Keresztesi. “So I think it’s very important that students and unions and other progressive organizations become aware of the direction that Mathias and Daman are taking the UTSU in.”
The UTSU has defended its decision, arguing that the staff cuts were made because of future financial concerns related, in part, to the development of the Student Commons. A UTSU statement released on May 30, 2017 addressing the elimination of the positions stated that the UTSU would have a “carried-forward deficit of $2 million by 2022” if the three positions were not eliminated, compared to a “carried-forward deficit of $250,000 in 2022” if the positions were eliminated.
The letter template also questions the reputability of Kokobi, the non-profit consulting firm hired by the UTSU to provide a report on the Student Commons project, and it states that “their conclusions are based on many deeply pessimistic assumptions.” The letter also says that “the UTSU’s financial documents indicate the UTSU is not in any immediate financial trouble.”
“We strongly believe, that one worst-case-scenario report cannot justify these drastic staff cuts that have such a negative impact on student services,” reads the letter.
Memmel said the letter’s claim that the UTSU “is not in any immediate financial trouble” is a “lie” and that bankruptcy was and is a “very real possibility.”
“Kokobi had nothing to do with the decision to reduce services,” said Memmel. “CUPE should stop indulging in childish conspiracy theories and start engaging in the grievance process.”
Adrian Kaats, Kokobi’s founder and Operations Director, told The Varsity that the firm “isn’t and has never been involved in UTSU’s HR decisions,” and that their work was limited to the Student Commons.
Memmel and Singh each reported receiving three copies of the letter, which is still available to send, but the changes are not being reconsidered.
“The UTSU exists to serve students; CUPE exists to serve its members,” said Memmel. “We’re not going to accept the subordination of students’ interests to the needs of full-time employees.”