Last June, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in 185 layoffs of union workers at the University of Toronto as stay-at-home orders came into effect. Among the affected were scores of workers belonging to United Steelworkers 1998representing U of T’s administrative and technical workers — and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3261, which represents service workers from U of T’s three campuses.

Months later, physical distancing and lockdown measures are still in place in Ontario, and thousands of Canadians are still unable to return to work. The Varsity interviewed CUPE 3261 President Allan James regarding the full-time and casual workers represented by the union.

Worsening conditions

With the worsening of the pandemic, more workers have been laid off since June. According to James, around 118 full-time and 42 part-time CUPE 3261 workers have been temporarily laid off due to the pandemic, and he reported that only 12 of the workers who were laid off have been able to return to work.

The union’s casual workers have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. There are 25 casual workers that have no work available to them according to James.

“ ‘Casual’ workers do not have guaranteed hours or job security even under normal circumstances,” wrote James, “and some of our ‘casual’ members are also students who are struggling with debt, housing insecurity, and mental health crises — all intensified during COVID-19.”

The union and the university have not yet discussed what should transpire if there is a shortage of work that results in termination pay. James wrote that if the issue of termination arises in the fall, the union and U of T will act according to the union’s collective agreement.

Extended financial support  

During the initial COVID-19-related layoffs, U of T provided workers with an income top-up scheme that gave laid-off workers up to $1,000 or 80 per cent of their income per month. This complemented the federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments —  which provided eligible Canadians $2,000 per month — allowing workers to earn up to $3,000 a month.

James wrote that U of T and CUPE 3261 have extended the temporary layoffs until fall 2021 and, consequently, will also be continuing the top-up income payments. Workers will also be able to retain their seniority rights and benefits coverage during this period.

The federal government ended the CERB program on December 2 and laid-off workers were transitioned to an enhanced version of Employment Insurance (EI). James wrote that the union has been supporting workers in accessing government support during this time. However, he believes that “workers need fair EI reforms.”

Canadians who were eligible for CERB may not be eligible for EI or may receive less than $2,000 a month using this government benefit. The union has urged the Canadian government in the past to raise the minimum benefit level for EI, particularly to support Canadians who are seasonal, casual, and precarious workers.

Systemic challenges 

In an email to The Varsity, the university administration defended the layoffs as extraordinary measures in the face of an unprecedented situation. “The University continues to explore all operationally feasible means of reducing adverse impact on employees,” wrote a U of T spokesperson. “Layoffs continue to be a measure of last resort and, in particular, best efforts are being made to avoid any permanent job losses due to the pandemic.”

Still, the layoffs experienced by union workers and thousands of other Canadians have exposed systemic issues within Canadian labour laws. CUPE 3261, along with other organizations such as the Workers’ Action Centre, has called for an increased number of paid sick leave days for essential workers. CUPE 3261 also advocates for equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine regardless of immigration status.

James emphasized the union’s stance on prioritizing the health of its workers: “the sooner we can reduce transmission, and ensure equal vaccine access for all, including health care workers and migrant workers facing outbreaks in sectors like agriculture, the sooner U of T can resume operations and our members can return to work safely.”

Key negotiations

Workers issues will be taking centre stage at the university in 2021, as multiple unions’ collective agreements expired in 2020. While CUPE 3261 is one of many unions that has signed a memorandum of settlement with the university — maintaining their expired agreement until the end of June — CUPE Local 3902 Unit 1 is currently bargaining with U of T’s Division of Human Resources and Equity.

Unit 1 of CUPE 3902 represents contract academic workers — such as teaching assistants and course instructors — and could grant negotiators the power to call a strike if a strike mandate vote is passed. A motion to put a strike mandate to the vote is scheduled for CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s annual general meeting on February 10, where the motion itself will go to a vote.

As the first U of T union negotiation of 2021, CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s resultant collective agreement will inform the bargaining process that other unions go through later in the year as memorandums of settlement expire.