By March 16, the vast majority of members in five units in Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 3261 and 3902 voted to accept the Tentative Agreement negotiated with the U of T administration. This final ratification marks the end of the months-long labour dispute that nearly caused strike action and ground university operations to a halt.

CUPE Local 3261 represents service workers, including caretaking staff and food service workers, while Local 3902 represents academic staff including sessional lecturers, postdoctoral researchers, and teaching assistants (TAs). This past February, five units across the two locals rallied on the Convocation Hall steps and threatened imminent strike action. Demonstrators raised complaints of underpayment, poor job security, reduced healthcare benefits, and inadequate sick pay and holiday provision. 

The two unions came together to pursue negotiations and threaten strikes in solidarity, which eventually brought the university to offer acceptable terms. “All bargaining committees achieved historic wins that will improve our members’ living and working conditions and improve the quality of education students receive,” wrote CUPE 3902 President Eriks Bredovskis in an email to The Varsity

Service workers win a living wage

The list of practical benefits that members have accrued following these negotiations is long and varied: $25 per hour for all full-time and part-time service workers represented by CUPE 3261; shift premiums for members of 3261’s full-time/part-time and 89 Chestnut units doing evening and overnight work; “equal pay for equal work” for 3902’s Unit 1 course instructors; greater healthcare benefits for 3902’s unit 1 and 5 members; and across-the-board — and retrospective — pay increases for 3902’s unit 5 postdoctoral fellows.

What CUPE 3261 President Luke Daccord calls “a historic agreement” will see all 700 full-time and part-time members of the union earn $25 per hour, or the living wage rate in Toronto. Before CUPE’s threats to strike, the university initially offered a mere nine per cent pay raise, which would have seen more than half of CUPE 3261 non-casual members paid below the living wage rate — including cashiers, building patrol workers, caretakers, and maintenance workers.

3261’s casual unit members — those who get working hours on a more freelance basis — will earn $20 per hour starting in January 2025. While this does not fully guarantee the unions’ demand for equal pay for equal work, the university has issued a letter of understanding that affirms that casual unit members should expect to receive equal wages to full-time/part-time members doing the same job, if the casual member is similarly qualified and performing the same “core duties and responsibilities” as their full-time/part-time counterparts. However, the letter also notes that such situations are rare, as casual members are typically given different responsibilities. 

The university also issued a letter of intent to convert casually-employed workers to full-time/part-time workers if they have worked at least 40 per cent of the hours expected of a full-time worker in that same job over the past two years, across at least 46 bi-weekly pay periods. This excludes casual employees who are full-time students, however.

All CUPE 3261 members will see an increase in shift premiums to a dollar per hour for evening and overnight shifts. In addition, benefit premium costs will be improved for the first time in over 30 years. Workers at the 89 Chestnut unit who do the same jobs as other union members will now also receive equal pay and benefits. 

All workers have also seen an increase in the amount the university pays in premiums to health coverage — up to 85 per cent of premiums, from a previous 75 per cent — and dental coverage — up to 90 per cent of premiums, from a previous 80 per cent.

Better health coverage, pay for course instructors, post-docs 

CUPE 3902 members won unique gains as well. Course instructors, represented by the local’s unit 1, will see “equal pay for equal work” to match sessional workers represented by unit 3. Specifically, all unit one members will receive a retroactive wage increase of nine per cent, backdated to January 1 of this year, a two per cent wage increase starting in January 2025, and a 1.8 per cent increase the following year. They will also receive a stipend to cover the costs associated with teaching a new course. 

These course instructors will receive greater healthcare coverage benefits, and no longer face the threat of having those benefits eliminated. Faculty of Music workers will even be paid for rehearsal and practice time.

Unit 5 postdoctoral fellows will also see a retroactive nine per cent pay rise and a dramatic boost in minimum annual salary from $36,061 to $50,000, which will effectively increase salaries for almost half of the unit’s members. To relieve the financial pressures on researchers, members will now be eligible for up to $500 per year to reimburse costs for professional development activities, with additional coverage of travel and accommodation expenses for supervisor-mandated activities, and greater healthcare benefits. 

All this “will be tremendously beneficial for those struggling to make ends meet,” wrote unit 5 Vice-President Sarah Warren in an email to The Varsity, especially given the rising cost of living, “sky-high inflation,” and the wage setbacks that post-docs endured during the now-stricken down Bill 124’s enforcement.

What’s next?

Unit 1 and 5 members voted 87.8 per cent and 97 per cent in favour of the Tentative Agreement, respectively. Full-time, part-time, and casual workers at CUPE 3261 voted 96 per cent in favour, with 89 per cent also giving their approval from the union’s 89 Chestnut unit. Thus, the majority of gains will have either already been implemented or done so retrospectively — although improved healthcare benefits will not be implemented until March 1, 2025.

This is not to say that the entire process is finished, however. The union bargaining teams have not yet won full subsidies for workers’ transit cost — however, CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s new contract affirms that the union will create a task force composed of unit 1 members and university representatives to convene with a commitment to create a 45 per cent transit discount for unit 1 members. 

According to the university’s letter of intent, the task force will pursue options including, but not limited to, requesting discounts directly from transit providers in the GTA. If the task force does not secure a 45 per cent discount of any kind by January 1, 2025, the university has to pay a million-dollar penalty to the unit’s Employee Financial Assistance Fund, and it must do so again in 2026 if the task force has still not succeeded.

There are also long-term ramifications to consider. Some of these improvements mean the university may even be able to position itself as a more attractive place for TA roles and thus attract a greater quality of candidates, and thus education. Masters and undergraduate students now have access to subsequent TA appointments. “U of T is now one of the first universities in North America with job security for undergraduate Teaching Assistants,” Bredovskis wrote. 

CUPE 3261 noted in its updates to its members that these talks are “just the beginning,” and that it has a commitment to enforcing the gains its workers made, organizing to continue improvement in every workplace. Both Bredovskis and Daccord emphasized that solidarity between service workers and academic workers on campus was crucial to achieving these gains.