Last November, an Ontario court declared Bill 124 — which had limited public sector workers’ salary increases to one per cent per year — unconstitutional. The rate of inflation in Canada, meanwhile, hit its peak at 8.1 per cent last year. That rate has been decreasing ever since, but it is still above the Bank of Canada’s ideal rate of 2 percent. This has meant increased costs of living and an erosion of consumer purchasing power.
Many of the contracts for U of T’s largest employee groups contracts — which typically last for around one to four years — were set to expire in June, and the resulting summer bargaining wave saw many unions taking advantage of Bill 124’s repeal. This summer, unions were able to negotiate significant improvements in pay in an attempt to make up for lost wages.
A bargaining refresher
Unions are organizations by and for workers to advance and protect their interests. A core part of this is the collective bargaining process, in which a team from a union negotiates with the university’s representatives to decide on a contract. The contract, also known as a collective agreement, determines everything from the working conditions of union members to things like pay, benefits, and workers’ protection.
U of T sports a total of 10 unions and 25 bargaining units. Bargaining units are a subset of a union, representing groups of workers in similar positions who share a collective agreement. They may represent a combination of full-time employees, part-time employees, and casual employees — those hired on a contract basis for at most a few months, whom employers usually hire in response to unforeseen and urgent situations.
Four of the units that saw new collective agreements this year are from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), CUPE 1230, CUPE 2484, and CUPE 3261; and from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), OPSEU 578. CUPE 2484 represents daycare workers at the university. CUPE 1230 represents student casual library workers. CUPE 3261 represents service workers on campus, such as caretakers and food service workers. OPSEU 578 represents research associates at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Multiple unions representing university staff achieved 2.6 per cent pay annual increases, that apply retroactively to the pay periods in which Bill 124 restrictions had been in place.
CUPE1230, CUPE2484, and OPSEU 578 all won an increase retroactive to the 2021–2022 period. However, that increase only applies to non-casual members of CUPE2484. Unifor 2003, which represents operating engineers at the universities’ campuses, meanwhile, achieved an increase retroactive to the 2022–2023 period.
Except for casual workers, all workers in these units also received a $400 one-time-only payment as part of the compensation for Bill 124 restrictions. They also achieved increases and more inclusions to their health benefits — notably, the addition of gender-affirming healthcare services. In an email to The Varsity, Manager of Strategic Communications at University Pension Plan Laura McQuillan wrote, “Certain units also negotiated a change that enables full-time employees to move to University Pension Plan, a jointly sponsored defined benefit pension plan that includes members from UofT, Queen’s, Guelph, and Trent.”
The United Steelworkers, Local 1998 Residence Dons unit negotiated a contract that clearly lays out dons’ compensation, a $500 one-time payment for most dons in response to Bill 124’s repeal, and wage increases for residence advisors. The casual units in CUPE1230 and CUPE3261 also achieved two additional paid sick days, with the latter also negotiating bereavement leave of five days, a base minimum rate for wages, and a mechanism through which workers can be recognized as part-time.
Units also made gains in working conditions and workers’ protection, in general, through clarifications of the language included in their contracts. CUPE2484’s new collective agreement includes language that reaffirms the equitable treatment of trans employees, clarification on the grievance process for violations of the collective agreement, and better protection against workplace harassment.
Both casual units for CUPE1230 and CUPE3261 attained recognition for domestic violence and a domestic violence leave for workers of up to 10 days, and CUPE3261’s contract now contains new language recognizing the right to free gender identification and additional commitment to equity employment metrics.
A look ahead at fall bargaining
These different bargaining units’ summer gains were similar, which is no coincidence. In the case of a large employer like U of T, bargaining units will use offers that U of T has made to other unions as precedents for their own negotiations. This means that as unions at the university are gearing up for a fresh round of collective bargaining this fall, with the expressed intention of coordinating bargaining together, within and across unions, to achieve their demands.
U of T saw solidarity and coordination between the major unions of CUPE and USW 1998 last fall, when CUPE3261 geared up for a strike.
On September 8, USW, Local 1998, one of the major unions representing technical staff at U of T, ratified a tentative agreement with the university for its staff-appointed unit, a category that excludes casual workers and represents appointed staff. The agreement covers three years, ending in June 2026, and includes a significant nine per cent raise for members in the first year of the agreement, with much lower increases of two per cent and 1.8 per cent for the following years.
The University of Toronto Faculty Association, a representative body that negotiates on behalf of faculties, also achieved an additional seven per cent increase in pay, retroactive to the year 2022–2023, which it secured on September 7.
There is no doubt that these significant wage raises were thanks to the repeal of Bill 124, and other unions likely will demand a similar catch-up in wage increases as the fall bargaining season unfolds.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that units with full-time employees negotiated a new plan for the change from the current long-term disability plan to the new University Pension Plan. In fact, new participants either transfer from their existing pension plan to UPP, or they did not previously have a pension, and have now gained one through their bargaining unit joining UPP. This is unrelated to a disability plan.