Having ratified their most recent agreement, both the University of Toronto and CUPE 3261 have some cause for celebration. The tentative agreement achieves the union’s goal of obtaining a $15 minimum wage for casual employees beginning in October 2017. This represents the first wage increase for casual workers at the university since 2009.
Though this achievement is significant, it cannot be accompanied by complacency. There are still many underlying, fundamental issues that continue to plague the lives of service workers at the university.
One of these issues is the university’s practice of contracting out caretaking work, which perpetuates rising inequality. In the recent agreement, the CUPE 3261 bargaining team was able to ensure that this practice would not threaten the job security of all its current members. However, this does not stop the university from slowly eradicating its caretaking jobs after current members retire, making the future of these positions uncertain.
The working conditions of those hired by third-party contractor Compass Group are also less than ideal. These caretakers, who have been contracted to clean in multiple buildings on the St. George campus, earn a low wage of $12.45 per hour with extremely limited benefits and no guaranteed hours of work. This is in comparison to U of T’s caretaking staff members, who, due to their union’s collective agreement, are entitled to higher pay and more extensive benefits.
While U of T certainly has a duty to manage its funds responsibly, the reluctance to support its service workers is not a matter of budget, but largely of priority. Last year, U of T experienced a budget surplus and received an endowment fund of $2.13 billion, easily the largest of any Canadian university. In addition, the administration was able to find room in the budget to purchase a $123 million property on College Street. In plain words, U of T has the resources to help our workers, but they have other priorities.
The tricky thing about priorities in general is that they depend on an institution’s view of a community. Considering a community to be a top-down system, for example, renders its success dependent on its highest-level members. In their book The Numbers Game, economists Chris Anderson and David Sully use this concept to describe “strong-link” sports such as basketball, in which the major determinant of a team’s success is often a superstar player, as Lebron James is to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This is the approach that many universities, including U of T, have adopted in their budgetary decisions. In 2015, while the Teaching Assistants were striking for wage increases, the sunshine list of public sector earners reported that the top four highest-paid university employees were U of T staff members. During this strike, the university issued a $165,000 raise to its fund manager, William Moriarty, who continues to top the sunshine list with his seven-figure salary every year. In an interview with the Toronto Star, a U of T spokesperson defended the raise by stating, “U of T must offer competitive salaries to attract and retain talented faculty and professional staff, who are key to ensuring the university’s research and education excellence.”
What the university was essentially saying is that our community is a game of superstars. It is a community in which funds must be prioritized for higher executive salaries, even if this is at the expense of others.
There is an alternative view of our community that I’d like to share; the bottom-up system. This approach overturns the common market ideology that views workforce cutbacks as the primary means of balancing a budget. In Profit at the Bottom of the Ladder, an international study published by the Harvard Business Press, Jody Heymann finds that employers who invest in their lower-skilled workers experience improved worker efficiency and, ultimately, increased company productivity. Real-world examples of this include American Apparel, which tripled its factory productivity after implementing better wage incentives, and Walmart, which experienced a rise in sales after raising employee wages.
Worker morale is also highly important. In his book The Happiness Industry, political economist William Davies argues that the employee disengagement that accompanies workplace cutbacks — often accompanied by increased sick days and high turnover rates — cost employers more than what they actually save in the long term.
U of T must realize that our community is stronger when we invest in our lowest-level members. Strike or no strike, a serious and long-term commitment to supporting our service workers would be beneficial to all members of the community. These are the people that prepare our food, clean our toilets, recycle our bottles, and operate our elevators. It’s time for the university administration to rethink its relationship with workers, and that starts by making it a priority to improve the lives of those who improve ours every day.
Michael Nakatsuru Shaffer is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Political Science. He is a part-time member of CUPE 3261.