After her father was diagnosed with cancer, Diana Medeiros’ mother became the family’s sole breadwinner by working as a caretaker at U of T. The work allowed her to support her family and send Diana to get her bachelor in kinesiology at U of T. Diana’s mother is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3261, which represents caretaking staff, drivers, technicians, and other service workers employed by U of T. The stability of her mother’s job enabled Medeiros to pursue her education to be a cardiovascular technologist. 

Not all service workers at U of T campuses will be able to enjoy that same security, as several caretaking positions at U of T have disappeared due to contracting out to for-profit firms. CUPE 3261’s Good Jobs U of T campaign, which the local launched in September, asserts that U of T is undermining service workers’ bargaining power by hiring workers from third-party contractors. 

“We are losing jobs due to attrition,” CUPE 3261 president Allan James said in an interview with The Varsity. James claims that the university replaces retiring CUPE 3261 members with workers from third-party contractors. This has happened with 150 positions since 2014, CUPE communications officer Daniel Tseghay told The Varsity in an email. He explained that these workers are cut off from the protections that CUPE 3261 has negotiated with the university.

Over the last few weeks, CUPE 3261 has tried and failed to negotiate limits on contracting out labour at the university. Although existing CUPE 3261 members’ jobs are protected, the local says that the university has been continuing to gradually replace those protected positions with more vulnerable ones as retiring workers are being replaced by workers brought from third-party companies. 

The search for subcontracted workers on campus

Some subcontracted workers at U of T are represented by other, weaker unions, while others are not unionized at all, according to research done by U of T professors Kiran Mirchandani and Michelle Buckley. In an executive summary of their findings, Mirchandani and Buckley reported that, “on average, subcontracted cleaning, food service and security staff made 26 per cent, 19 per cent and 25 per cent less [in salary] than their directly employed counterparts.” They also reported “dramatic differences” in these employees’ benefits and working conditions, despite the fact that their responsibilities were essentially the same.

The executive summary describes the university’s records of service work contracts as “a murky maze – full of obscure documents, siloed knowledge, and dead-end information trails.” Mirchandani noted she was surprised to find that there was no system keeping track of the various subcontractors across the university’s campuses. She and Buckley resorted to sending student researchers “door to door” to find out who was employing the caretaking staff in various buildings. 

Human Resources administration is divided amongst 13 different offices and “various central HR units,” a spokesperson from the university told The Varsity in an email. They noted that the University uses “established, unionized service providers,” which contradicts Mirchandani and Buckley’s findings that not all service workers at U of T are unionized. However, they could not point to any central office or standard of ethics for hiring subcontracted labour.

Other Canadian universities have agreed to some protections against contracting out, as Tseghay pointed out in an email to The Varsity. However, the language in these universities’ collective agreements with their CUPE service workers is vague. The University of British Columbia has agreed to make efforts to “constructively address” concerns regarding contracting out. Wilfrid Laurier University has agreed to employ CUPE employees as its labour needs increase, provided it is “operationally feasible.” Toronto Metropolitan University has stated that it supports work performed by CUPE Local 223 members, and is undertaking a review of work that is being performed by outside contractors. The University of Guelph (U of G) has agreed to meet with CUPE Local 1334, which represents service workers at U of G, when necessary to discuss concerns with contracting out.

It’s not a question of whether the university can afford to pay directly employed workers, either: “The university can [both] preserve [service workers’] jobs and be fiscally responsible,” James asserted. According to the University’s 2022–2023 Balanced Budget report, expenditures are projected at $3.23 billion for the 2022–2023 academic year. About 27 per cent of that budget, $865 million, is allocated for compensating nonacademic staff, including administration, campus police, library workers, as well as service workers. On the other hand, U of T spends $1.018 billion on compensating academic staff, which represents about 31.5 per cent of its budget. 

Solidarity with service workers is growing

Over 170 U of T faculty and librarians have signed an open letter written by scholars to U of T in November. The letter echoes the demands of CUPE 3261’s Good Jobs U of T campaign. It notes that service workers “are mostly women, racialized minorities and newcomers to Canada,” and that subcontracted positions at the university campuses are “poverty-wage jobs.” 

“My tuition fees should be going to the people that are actually running this campus,” declared Fatemeh Nami, president of the Arts and Science Student Union, at a rally in front of Sidney Smith Hall on November 16. Attendees included members from CUPE 3261, CUPE 3902, the United Steelworkers, and Students Mobilizing against Systemic Hardship. One day later, CUPE 3261 averted a labour strike by settling on a tentative agreement with U of T that fails to limit contracting out labour, but “includes important progress to begin to make change,” according to its bulletin.