Thousands of workers across all U of T campuses and three different chapters of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) are threatening to go on strike if they do not reach a new deal with the university by March 4.

CUPE 3902 and 3261 workers gathered on the steps of Convocation Hall on February 8 to outline their grievances and demands, which broadly include increased pay and support, as well as better working conditions. CUPE 3902 President Eriks Bredovskis and 3261 President Luke Daccord wrote to The Varsity that these arguments boil down to “respect and dignity, and provid[ing] all workers with a living wage.”

More than 8,000 workers across seven bargaining units, covering all three U of T campuses, are represented by three CUPE trade unions. These units include 3902, representing contract academic workers like Teaching Assistants (TAs) and postdoctoral fellows; 3261, representing service workers such as caretakers; and 1230, representing library workers. 

“Enough is enough… we all share one employer, one workplace, and one understanding that our work is fundamental to the university’s success. It cannot function without us,” explained Eriks Bredovskis, CUPE 3902 President to The Varsity in an email.

“There’s something going on when TAs, postdocs, caretakers, and food service workers all recognize that they are in the same struggle together,” said CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn to CUPE members during the February 8 demonstration.

The demands

Bredovskis wrote that CUPE’s demands “all circle back to wanting a workplace that treats us with respect and dignity, and provides all workers with a living wage.” This includes extending a living wage to the lowest paid workers in the three unions, which include workers classified as “casual workers,” cafeteria workers, and postdoctoral fellows. These demands also include calling for an end to funding clawbacks that have eaten into education workers’ salaries.

A press release published by CUPE quoted Bredovskis saying that although his unit’s members do “the vast majority of teaching” at U of T, their pay does not reflect this. Given their current income, some members “can’t even afford to live in the city they teach in,” Bredovskis said.

With Bill 124 — a 2019 bill that reduced public sector pay increases to a maximum of one per cent per year — having been ruled unconstitutional, the unions are demanding that the university accept proposed wage increases above the now-stricken-down limit. Unit 3261 demands a “living wage” of about $25 an hour for its workers — the minimum rate that the Living Wage Network calculates is necessary to cover the basic cost of living in the GTA. It is also $8.45 more per hour than Ontario’s minimum wage rate. 

if U of T and the union do not agree to a satisfactory deal by March 4, both unions will be in a legal strike or ‘lockout’ position.
Thomas Law

“We’ve asked them to pay our members a living wage of $25 an hour and they told us at the table that they can’t afford it despite a net income of more than half a billion dollars last year,” Daccord asserted in a speech at the February 8 demonstration.

It is not just as simple as more pay, however. Bredovskis wrote to The Varsity that during negotiation talks, the union has not been satisfied with the university’s offers for healthcare coverage, and the university will not agree to subsidize workers’ public transit costs, which the CUPE press release states is common for CUPE units in other universities in Ontario. Bredovskis wrote that the university has justified this decision because workers “choose where [they] live.” 

Will they walk out?

CUPE 3902 Unit 1, representing TAs and course instructors, served U of T with a notice to bargain on October 26, 2023, indicating their intentions to bargain for a new collective agreement, in advance of their previous agreement’s expiration on December 31, 2023. Despite provincial statutory obligations to meet within two weeks of such notice, the first round of talks did not take place until 82 days later, on January 15. Even then, Bredovskis wrote to The Varsity that “the university has not matched [the union’s] energy, preparedness, or sense of urgency” in talks.

So, where to next? Earlier this month, CUPE 3902 leadership put strike mandate votes to its members, in effect asking them for an endorsement to call a strike should current talks fail to produce a deal that members agree to. Unit 1 and 5 members voted overwhelmingly in favour, delivering 94.4 and 95.1 per cent mandates respectively. 

Voting began for CUPE 3261 members on February 18, and closed on February 22. 

Units 3261 and 3902 requested and received a notice from the Ontario Ministry of Labour that granted them the legal capacity to begin a 17-day countdown, starting February 16, toward a legal strike action.

That means that if U of T and the union do not agree to a satisfactory deal by March 4, both unions will be in a legal strike or ‘lockout’ position. The strike votes and the reports do not automatically trigger a strike — rather, they empower unit leaders to call for various labour disruptions, up to and including a strike. 

Before that point, there is still time to come to an understanding. CUPE 3902 Unit 1 has scheduled talks with the university for February 20, 21, 28, and 29. CUPE 3261 also has negotiations scheduled for February 22 and 23, and March 1. CUPE 1230 has dates at the table for February 27 and March 1.

The nature of industrial action is disruptive to staff, institutions, and the people using their services alike. Daccord and Bredovskis wrote that it is a last resort: “a strike will only be called if U of T fails to meet our demands for critical economic and structural support that will help all our members provide the world-class experience all students deserve.”

The university declined to address The Varsity’s enquiries regarding CUPE leadership’s specific allegations and demands, since units 3261 and 3902 are currently undergoing collective bargaining. “The parties have worked together successfully in many previous rounds of bargaining to negotiate renewal collective agreements without labour disruptions,” a spokesperson wrote to The Varsity in an email. 

“The university looks forward to ongoing constructive and productive discussions with these CUPE locals towards tentative agreements that address the needs of the workers and the university,” they wrote.