On September 6, 2021, according to the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3261 (CUPE 3261), the university contracted out cleaning work for three more buildings on the St. George campus. According to the petition previously posted by CUPE 3261 last year, U of T made the decision on August 17, 2020 to contract out cleaning services for 18 buildings on the St. George campus out to a third party — a private, for-profit business not part of the union. Yet, because of the additional three buildings, CUPE 3261 is still asking for U of T to stop contracting out caretaking services. 

CUPE 3261 represents service employees at U of T who perform many essential services for the university such as caretaking, food services, and groundskeeping. The pandemic has hit service workers hard; many of them were laid off at the start of the pandemic, and those still employed at U of T are concerned about the safety of working on campus. 

U of T wrote that contracting out cleaning work is part of the university’s long-term strategy as a public sector institution. “Our mission is to deliver world-class post-secondary education and conduct leading edge research, in a fiscally responsible manner,” a spokesperson for the university wrote.

The petition

Last year, U of T contracted out some caretaking services during the pandemic. Despite the university’s claims last year that these efforts were temporary, CUPE 3261’s demands have largely remained the same. In a recent news post on its website, CUPE 3261 explains that the university had over a year to hire union employees and train them to perform specialized cleaning services, but instead has chosen to further contract out this work. The union is encouraging its members to take action and has provided a template for union members to email U of T administration protesting their decision to contract out work.

The original petition claims that this decision was detrimental to the cleaning staff that is already employed at the university. “CUPE 3261 members working as caretakers will be reassigned to other work, however roughly 18 directly employed positions with decent wages and benefits are being cut indefinitely,” an update from last year reads.

The petition also highlighted further implications of contracting out work. It claims that contracting out work, especially cleaning services, can jeopardize the health and safety of everyone who uses the facilities. Private cleaning companies may pay lower wages and cut corners to minimize cost. The petition also stresses that the contracting out of work can have adverse effects on racialized employees who are “over-represented in lower-paid and precarious jobs.” 

The push against privatization

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the broader union that CUPE 3261 is a part of, also discusses the dangers of contracting out work and privatization on its website, especially during the pandemic. According to the CUPE, some indicators that an employer may be considering contracting out work include financial struggles, layoffs, funding cuts to public services, and the enactment of emergency legislation.

The CUPE website also lists ways that unions can protect themselves against their employers contracting out work, such as spreading the word through social media, promoting the importance of public services, and building relationships with other unions and community members. 

Following the collective agreement

According to the collective agreement that is laid out between U of T and the CUPE 3261, the university is permitted to contract out work, provided that it informs the union. In some cases, it may have to provide rationale as to why that work is being contracted out before it signs a new contract with a third party company.

“Cleaning work in new buildings at the University of Toronto has been contracted out for well over 10 years. Since 2014, as natural attrition, including retirement, occurs, the University consults centrally and divisionally to determine whether cleaning work will be contracted out, and in which buildings,” wrote a spokesperson for the university.

The university also stressed that cleaning and disinfection quality has been a high priority during the pandemic. It also stated that it is following the collective agreement that has been laid out between U of T and the CUPE 3261. 

“During the past 18 months of the pandemic, the requirements for cleaning and disinfection have intensified. No one is available to do this additional temporary work internally,” the U of T spokesperson wrote. The university also stated that its caretaking staff are being fully utilized and that no one in the caretaking department has been laid off because of the pandemic.

“The health and safety of the U of T community and providing high quality service are our top priorities; the augmentation of our caretaking staff with unionized reputable contracted partners allows us to continue accomplishing these priorities,” the university wrote.

CUPE 3261 did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.