In the early hours of the morning on March 4, members of a collective bargaining team representing five units of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) informed members at U of T that they’d reached a tentative collective employment agreement with the university. 

“United we won!” posted CUPE 3902 on X a bit after 4:00 am.

CUPE 3902 units 1 and 5 and three units of CUPE 3261 — collectively representing more than 8,000 educators and service workers at U of T — had previously declared their intentions to strike if they didn’t release a satisfactory agreement with the university by the legal deadline. At 12:01 am, the five CUPE units from two chapters of the union would have entered a legal position allowing them to go on strike.

In a public statement, CUPE 3902 Communications Coordinator and anthropology PhD candidate Marianna Reis wrote that the bargaining committee received “historic” final offers from U of T a few minutes before midnight. The committee decided to sign the new offers into tentative agreement. 

Members of these units will have a chance to vote on whether to ratify this tentative agreement at a membership meeting early next week. The unions’ members must ratify the tentative agreement through a secret ballot for it to come into effect. If members decline to ratify the agreement, the bargaining committee will ask the university to return to the bargaining table. 

At the moment, the units are advising their members to return to campus for work as usual. 

The groups have scheduled a rally in King’s College Circle, titled United We Win, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm today. Reis announced this morning that the rally would be proceeding as scheduled.

Who was at the bargaining table?

CUPE — the largest trade union at U of T — represents thousands of workers at U of T, including teaching assistants (TA), course instructors, library workers, food service workers, and post-doctoral fellows. Among the 10 CUPE bargaining units stationed at the university, five had nearly entered a legal position to declare a strike at 12:01 am. 

CUPE 3902 – Unit 1: This unit represents approximately 6,000 graduate and undergraduate students working as educators, including TAs, course instructors, lab assistants, and invigilators not employed by the federated colleges, as well as post-doctoral fellows contracted to teach. 

CUPE 3902 – Unit 5: Around 800 postdoctoral fellows who work with faculty members and graduate students to conduct research make up this unit. 20 per cent of unit’s 5 members also belong to CUPE 3902 Unit 1. 

CUPE 3261 – Full Time/Part Time (FT/PT), Casual and 89 Chestnut units: The FT/PT unit represents approximately 700 caretakers, food service workers, maintenance and grounds workers, veterinary technologists, building patrol, and other service workers at U of T. The Casual unit represents approximately 250 service workers employed on a casual basis, in work similar to that for FT/PT staff for up to 24 hours per week. The 89 Chestnut represents approximately 80 workers at Chestnut Residence and Conference employed in food service, housekeeping and maintenance.

What’s at stake?

In November 2022, the Superior Court of Justice struck down Bill 124 — which came into effect in 2019 and capped annual wage increases for Ontario public sector employees at one per cent. At the same time, over 2022, average prices in Canada increased by 6.8 per cent, according to the Canadian consumer price index. 

The bill was in effect during the negotiations for all five units’ most recent collective agreements with the university about workers’ terms of employment. Most of the multi-year agreements that resulted from these negotiations expired in 2023.

Reis wrote that the tentative agreement negotiators reached on Monday includes a 12.8 per cent wage increase over the next three years for members of CUPE 3902 Unit 1, a nine per cent 2023 retroactive wage increases for members of Unit 5, and a minimum wage of $25 an hour for CUPE 3902’s FT/PT and 89 Chestnut units, among other terms.

As of March 2, according to a bargaining update from CUPE 3902 Unit 1, the unit was demanding that U of T increase wages by 10 per cent in 2024 and by five per cent in both 2025 and 2026 to keep up with inflation and the rising cost of living in Ontario. The unit also demanded  “100% coverage of UHIP premiums, guaranteed subsequent appointments for undergraduate and master’s TAs, and a clear financial commitment to subsidized transit for student workers,” according to a bargaining update it distributed on March 2.

Unit 5 was demanding an increase in its members’ minimum salaries. It also demanded that U of T create professional development funds that would cover the cost of accommodations for activities like travel and hotels for conferences. 

The three CUPE 3261 units were advocating for extended contract expiration dates and a complete ban on the university contracting out their work to non-union workers. The Casual unit wanted its members’ pay to equal the pay of of FT/PT members for the same work and asked for 10 paid sick days per year. The 89 Chestnut unit wanted paid sick leave for its members, and vacation and shift premiums equal to the FT/PT unit.

In a February email to The Varsity, CUPE 3902 President Eriks Bredovski and 3261 President Luke Daccord wrote that the units’ bargaining demands aimed to secure “respect and dignity, and provide all workers with a living wage.”

What happened before Monday?

Since the beginning of 2024, a collective bargaining committee representing all five units has been meeting with the university to negotiate new deals, but until March 4, it had not come to an agreement with U of T that met the units’demands.

In February, all five units held strike mandate votes — which allowed members to demonstrate whether they supported their bargaining committee calling for a strike if the committee did not reach a satisfactory deal with the university. In all elections, between 91 and 98 per cent of workers who voted in each unit indicated support for a strike.

On February 16, all five units requested and received a notice from the Ontario Ministry of Labour allowing them to begin a 17-day countdown towards entering a legal strike position. On March 4 at March 4 at 12:01 am, all five units entered the legal strike period. 

CUPE 3902 last went on strike in February 2015. The strike, which lasted for a month, led most academic activities to be cancelled, suspended, or disrupted. Many students participated in walkouts with workers and other actions. The university also extended the credit/no credit deadline and allowed students to drop courses at the end of the semester without academic penalties. Some exams were cancelled or altered.

In 2022, CUPE 3261 reached an agreement with U of T a little over 72 hours before its strike deadline.