Faculty members and librarians across all three campuses of the University of Toronto have started a “Colleague to Colleague” solidarity fund to help U of T workers who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations are currently being accepted and will continue to be collected until September 6, at which time the organizers hope to have raised $350,000. So far, they have raised over $61,000.

Funds will provide financial support to members of three labour unions — CUPE 3902, United Steelworkers 1998 (USW 1998), and UNITE HERE — who have experienced drastic changes in their work at the university as a result of the pandemic, such as being laid off or furloughed.

The Varsity spoke to two of the many faculty and librarian organizers, spanning a wide range of academic positions and fields.

Creation of the fund

While there are a number of other recent initiatives at the university and federal levels to provide similar support, the organizers found that more than a few university workers had fallen through the cracks. Still, Nicole Mideo, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and one of the fund’s organizers, said “We had no idea when we started what the scale of the problem was.” 

The organizers began by reaching out to various groups on campus, in many cases forging new connections. Through the process, Mideo said that the organizers have “developed an even greater sense of responsibility to stand in solidarity with these folks.”

As for her own motivation to become involved with the fund, Mideo expressed that “the thought of people possibly in my own workplace losing their jobs while I was in this comfortable position was truly horrifying to me.” She added that “the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic are quite obvious, and these impacts are exacerbated by existing inequalities.”

Since she is newer to the university, Rachel Goffe, an assistant professor of human geography, said that the coalition of faculty and librarians who were thinking about the needs of others in the university community “felt really powerful.”

Goffe also sees this as an opportunity to generate new ways to deal with inequality in the post-pandemic world. “Hopefully this is also a moment for us to think about how we can mobilize that, not just in times of acute crisis but in the daily, ongoing crisis that is the way that a lot of folks live.”

While the organizers initially intended to open the fund for donations near the end of March or early April, they realized that financial need would persist in the later months. Instead, the fund opened in early August. Mideo expressed that “hopefully not only will we have more contributions by [September 6], but we’ll be able to provide support at a time when people are losing other sources of support.”

The organizers feel optimistic about the fund’s progress, having raised over $30,000 in the first few days. Initially, the announcement that the fund was open for donations was only sent to the 350 original signatories, but they are now in the process of reaching out to a broader audience.

Recipients of the funds

One union with which the organizers have connected is CUPE Local 3902, which represents approximately 10,000 academic contract workers at the university, including teaching assistants, exam invigilators, and sessional lecturers, as well as writing professionals, music instructors, and postdoctoral students.

Amy Conwell, Chair of CUPE 3902, explained that academic contract workers have had an increased workload during the pandemic, which often requires them to teach in more than one delivery format.

One challenge is that supporting staff, such as teaching assistants, are expected to keep up with changing course delivery formats that can require extra time to make adjustments, often without compensation. She has also seen several instances of international students who have had to pay separate rent in two countries due to current travel restrictions and have not been able to find extra work to make up for the difference in cost.

Nick Marchese, President of the Casual Unit at the USW Local 1998 union, told The Varsity that the job insecurity of casual workers is often overlooked. “When I talk to people about this, about the precarity of work at a university, people are dumbfounded.” 

The Casual Unit of USW Local 1998 comprises contract workers in various areas on campus and represents both students and non-student workers. On average, a total of around 10,000 casual employees work at the university in any given year.

The pandemic has caused a decline in the amount of casual workers, with 1,600 fewer jobs in June 2020 than June of last year. Some areas that have been hit the hardest include kinesiology, physical education, summer camps, and hiring for convocation and research projects. 

President of USW 1998 Colleen Burke noted that, even within a single labour union, there is still incongruity in how different people have been affected by the pandemic. She explained that the Staff Appointed Unit of USW 1998 has been relatively unaffected, while the Casual Unit has experienced devastating consequences.

While about one third of the casual membership of students at USW 1998 has been eligible to apply for government student relief programs, such as the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit or employment insurance, their sources of income after these programs come to an end remain unclear. Burke noted that casual employees often lack “that safety net” and “that cushion that a full-time worker would have.” 

How funds will be distributed

Priority for receiving funds will be given to those who have experienced significant changes in work conditions due to the pandemic and to workers who identify as Black, Indigenous, people of colour, women, transgender, Two Spirit, non-binary, or gender-diverse.

At the request of these unions, the organizing group has set out preliminary need-based principles regarding disbursement of these funds, which involve measures such as level of food and housing security and access to other forms of support. 

USW 1998 and CUPE 3902’s criteria for deciding financial need have not yet been laid out. Conwell said that the union plans on waiting until the donation period has closed and the total amount of money raised has been determined before making decisions about specific eligibility criteria. 

The USW 1998, on the other hand, would prefer the fund to manage the criteria. “As a union that represents upward of 8,500 people, many of whom have different needs, it’s difficult to figure out what is the criteria and what is the hardship,” Burke said.

She also expressed a heartfelt appreciation for the implementation of the fund on behalf of the union, describing the fund as a “tangible expression of solidarity that U of T really is [and] can be a community where groups that don’t seem to have a lot in common are coming together.”