On April 1, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 Unit 1 membership voted to ratify its bargaining team’s proposed tentative agreement with U of T, making it the new collective agreement between the unit and the university until 2023. It’s replacing the unit’s prior collective agreement, which expired on December 31, 2020.

The ratification averted a potential strike of the contract academic workers that CUPE 3902 represents — including teaching assistants and course instructors — and is the result of hours of bargaining between CUPE 3902 and U of T. The negotiations began in November and concluded with the signing of the tentative agreement on March 26.

The Varsity spoke with Chair of CUPE 3902 Amy Conwell, a PhD candidate in U of T’s Centre for Medieval Studies; and Vice-Chair of Unit 1 Kyle Shaw-Müller, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, to discuss the bargaining process.

A collaborative process

The creation of a tentative agreement “is quite a process,” according to Shaw-Müller. Elected representatives of each division in CUPE 3902 worked together to revise the current collective agreement during the early stages of bargaining in November.

Conwell explained that the union representatives took on the brunt of the work by reading the lengthy expired agreement to identify problem areas. The representatives developed a survey and sent it to the union members to gain their insights in developing the union’s platform.

“We presented it to the membership in October; they adopted it, so then we had a mandate from them to make gains based on the platform,” she said. “Then, we developed proposals, and we brought those proposals to the university.”

Problems and solutions

Some important problem areas that the union identified — and subsequently included in the union’s platform — were pregnancy and parental leave, sick leave, bereavement leave, and compassionate leave. Under the old agreement, union members had one accessible option for pregnancy and parental leave — “taking leave from whatever amount of time remains in your contract and getting paid per month while not being at work,” Conwell explained.

“Unless you happen to go on leave right at the beginning of your contract, you don’t have the full amount of possible leave time available to you,” she said. “You might end up taking only two months of leave, [but] what you’re supposed to be able to access is four months of leave.” One of the major changes was amending this to ensure four months of leave for all union members regardless of when they go on leave.

Another major change to the collective agreement was to improve the hiring criteria for contract academic workers. “For decades, our hiring criteria sort of piled up on each other to make for a weird selection of often vague and easy-to-abuse criteria, like suitability, mastery, and proficiency,” explained Shaw-Müller. The hiring process was streamlined to rely on three specific criteria instead: previous experience, the need to acquire experience, and academic qualifications.

Job action option

On March 21, CUPE 3902 entered a position in which it was legally allowed to strike. Strikes are regulated in Ontario, and any potential job action requires a mandate from the union membership and the filing of a ‘no board’ notice with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development. Even then, union leaders have to wait 17 days after the filing of the notice to call a strike.

CUPE 3902 last went on strike in 2015, following a tentative agreement that members did not choose to send to a unit-wide ratification vote. The job action lasted a month and saw contract academic workers withdraw from their activities, causing academic disruption.

A bargaining deadline of March 25 was set with the university. Conwell explained, “[CUPE 3902 leadership] didn’t think it made sense to call the strike on [March] 21 or even before [March] 25 because we want to go talk to our members first and be as democratic and open with them as possible,” Conwell explained.

To demonstrate the union’s willingness to strike, CUPE 3902 hosted a “Prepare to Strike” Day on March 24 that consisted of sign making and other activities run by picket captains at locations around Toronto. “The folks who helped prepare, the folks who came, and even the folks who were just following the actions online were really energized and excited about that and felt a lot of faith in what we could do together as a union and collective of workers,” added Conwell.

Meaningful changes

Before voting on the ratification closed, Conwell said, “I think [Unit 1 members] would be really excited to have a new collective agreement in hand, especially one with such sweeping and significant gains that will, I think, impact them in ways that are hard to even realize when we look at the language of the document.”

Shaw-Müller added, “We were able to think critically about our working conditions in a way that I think many prior bargaining teams hadn’t had the chance to do.”

The impact of this agreement will benefit parties outside of CUPE 3902. “We were consulting not only with our members but also with other bodies on campus, such as the faculty association and student unions,” said Conwell. “As part of those consultations, particularly with student unions, we proposed things that we thought would directly benefit the student learning experience.” 

“For example, it’s really important that people coming into the classroom have a training that’s appropriate, which means not only training in good pedagogy… but also training in cultural competency, decolonizing the classroom, and anti-oppression in the classroom,” she continued.

CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s new collective agreement expires on December 31, 2023, and its full text will be available on the collective bargaining website maintained by the university’s Division of Human Resources & Equity. On its collective bargaining updates website, U of T “thanks the negotiating teams for their hard work, commitment and dedication throughout the collective bargaining process.”

Editor’s note (April 4): This article has been corrected to reflect that labour groups do not collaborate with university administrators in the early stages of bargaining.