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New USW Local 1998 collective agreement extends benefits and work flexibility

Despite the limits of Bill 124, the union made significant gains in compensation
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The USW 1998 represents administrative and technical workers at U of T. COURTESY OF USW1998
The USW 1998 represents administrative and technical workers at U of T. COURTESY OF USW1998

After 21 consecutive hours of bargaining with the University of Toronto and a process that was drawn out by pandemic delays and disruptions, the United Steelworkers’ Local 1998 (USW 1998) has ratified the newest contract for its staff-appointed unit. The new contract includes a one per cent increase in pay across the board and better language around work flexibility.

Delays due to the pandemic

USW 1998 represents around 7,000 employees in administrative and technical positions across U of T,, some of its colleges, and University of Toronto Schools. Over half of the union’s members are permanent and continuing staff. Approximately once every three years, the union’s staff-appointed unit prepares for the negotiation of a new contract which will set out working conditions, pay, and other compensation, usually by surveying members before beginning bargaining with U of T.

The union was drawing up its proposals when the pandemic happened, which led to a one-year extension of the old contract due to uncertainty regarding the university’s budget. “It was a very long ride this time,” said Colleen Burke, a representative of the union and a member of the bargaining committee. 

After the delay in 2020, preparations for bargaining only started late in summer 2021 due to U of T’s negotiation backlogs but negotiations with U of T began in December 2021 and a collective agreement was reached on February 19, 2022.

Compensation and benefit extensions

The contract covers a two-year term and includes a one per cent pay increase across the board, limited by Bill 124, which caps increases in pay and compensation for public sector employees at one per cent annually. Although this was a big obstacle in the union’s bargaining, the new contract made significant increases in benefits and coverage. For example, paramedical and mental health care benefits were increased by more than 25 per cent, with extended coverage, along with extensions for reproductive health, coverage for gender affirmation care, and child care benefit increase. 

Additionally, the Early Retirement Bridge Benefit was reestablished, and the union proposed a Career Development Fund worth $250,000 a year to support training and career advancement of employees.

“We worked closely with our USW research department on the costing to make the one per cent pie as big as possible,” wrote Burke in an email, adding that the union was surprised by the improvement in benefits it achieved. 

Unlike previous agreements, some benefits increases were separated into different contract years due to the one per cent annual limit imposed by Bill 124. The union said it prioritized “improvements that would benefit most of the members” in negotiations, while also “[being] mindful of equity issues and [bargaining] coverage for gender affirming expenses.”

Fair, balanced, and equitable working conditions

One nonmonetary priority achieved by the new contract was better language on work flexibility. According to Burke, “[the] previous contract language was pretty weak and we saw a lot of favoritism and arbitrariness.” The new contract specified reasons that managers must give for their decisions and gave the union more flexibility to use and challenge the grievance process.

Moreover, the union and U of T expect to further work on “resolution of civility and harassment concerns and workplace restorations,” among other alternatives to “the civility complaint process.” A letter of intent called “Employee Accommodation” was included, as a way to address members’ “negative experiences with Health and Wellbeing.” One titled “Gender Identity and Gender Expression” committed the university to “supporting members’ gender identity and expression,” according to the contract highlights.

U of T did not comment on union members’ negative experiences with the accommodation and complaint process. In regard to why the new additions to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) were not in previous contracts, a spokesperson for the university replied, “EDI was a significant priority for both the University and the Union, which is the case not only in this round of bargaining, but also with all our other bargaining partners. This round was particularly productive in respect of EDI, as we were away from the bargaining table for over four years, and there have been significant advancements in all areas of EDI during that time.”

The contract was ratified by 87.7 per cent of union voters on February 28, 2022. The union will be back at the bargaining table next spring before the current contract expires in July 2023.