U of T needs to rethink its relationship with its workers

Why the administration should take a bottom-up approach to community-building

U of T needs to rethink its relationship with its workers

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.

Two campus workers’ unions ratify tentative agreements with university

CUPE 3261, USW 1998 secured strike mandate in August

Two campus workers’ unions ratify tentative agreements with university

After voting for a strike action mandate in August, members of CUPE 3261 and USW 1998, campus unions representing thousands of workers across the University of Toronto, voted to ratify the tentative agreements their bargaining committees negotiated with the university administration.

Earlier this month, 96 per cent of USW 1998’s members voted to approve the agreement, in comparison to 74 per cent in favour in 2014, the last time the union negotiated with the university.

In a statement posted on their website, union President Colleen Burke noted that the “agreement contains no concessions. Instead, it makes important gains in both monetary and non- monetary areas.” Wages will increase in the coming years, and health benefits have improved.

CUPE 3261, representing service workers across U of T, also successfully ratified labour agreements. The full-time and part-time unit voted 83 per cent in favour, and the casual unit voted 57 per cent in favour. The full tentative agreement was not posted on their website “for reasons of confidentiality,” and the union noted that they were unable to discuss some issues, such as the ending of contracting-out of services.

Let’s throw our support behind ongoing labour negotiations

Re: “Campus unions secure strike action mandate”

Let’s throw our support behind ongoing labour negotiations

A few weeks ago, both CUPE 3261 and USW 1998 voted overwhelmingly in favour of securing a strike mandate. Although these votes don’t translate to immediate strikes, they highlight the impending challenges that unions face with bargaining every few years and further remind us that we should be paying attention to how this issue unfolds.

Historically, unionized work at U of T has allowed many workers to bargain for decent wages, healthcare, retirement benefits, sick days, and even subsidized tuition. However, challenges to protecting worker welfare constantly arise. CUPE 3261, representing workers from food services to caretaking, is presently negotiating for improvements to their contract. The union is faced with the daunting task of playing catch-up after enduring years of austerity spending. Casual workers, many of whom are students, have not seen an increase in wages since 2009, and are paid far less for doing the same work as their full-time counterparts. Meanwhile, in order to cut costs, the university continues to contract out cleaning services, replacing unionized positions with low-wage jobs.

Bargaining is an important process not only in determining the conditions certain workers face, but in setting the standards for workers everywhere. A strike would affect everyone from cafeteria staff or teaching assistants. Campus unions deserve our support in their fight for better working conditions — and not just during negotiations or strikes. As a premier public institution, U of T should be setting the standard for high-quality working conditions, not promoting low-wage, austerity-driven labour.

Stanley Treivus is a fifth-year student at Innis College studying Human Geography and Political Science.

U of T, CUPE indicate all former Aramark food workers offered jobs

University takeover of St. George food services occurred August 1

U of T, CUPE indicate all former Aramark food workers offered jobs

With the university takeover of food services from Aramark occurring at the St. George campus on August 1, the university and CUPE have indicated that all former Aramark employees have been offered employment with the university.

“All Aramark employees were offered a new job with the university at a substantively higher rate of pay with a pension plan and benefits that they did not have before and the ability for them and their children to attend U of T for free,” said Sarah Jordison from CUPE Communications.

While employed by Aramark, hourly wages for most food services workers ranged between $12.00 to $12.80. The university offered food services workers wages at $20.29 an hour with benefits such as a tuition waiver for employees and dependents.

In May and June, supporters and active members of UNITE HERE Local 75 — the union that previously represented food services workers at UTSG — voiced concerns over whether all workers would be rehired by the university, the status of the seniority of the workers, and the 90-day probationary period. The union organized protests and a week-long hunger strike.

Following U of T’s takeover, food services workers are represented by CUPE 3261.

Representatives from U of T had one-on-one conversations with all former Aramark employees in order to establish what their duties at work were and the hours they worked.

“We tried not to change people’s lives too much so we met with them all individually,” Anne Macdonald, Director of Ancillary Services said. “We tried to stick with that but at the same time we are doing things differently, so there will be changes.”

Macdonald noted that most of these changes will occur in the type of work that people are doing. According to MacDonald, cooks can expect to be using different, more fresh, ingredients than they did when employed by Aramark.

Macdonald also told The Varsity that there were six or seven employees, out of 250 food services workers, who did not want to work for U of T; the university did not meet with these individuals.

“It’s not like it was a brand new venture to do this all ourselves, there’s some experience with respect to, certainly the things that count…cooking, the ability to cook and the ability to plan menus and to procure food,” Macdonald added, also noting that University College and Chestnut Residence already control their own food services.

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

Two of seven hunger strikers are U of T cafeteria workers

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

As graduates celebrated convocation, hunger strikers camped out with tents on the southeast corner of King’s College Circle.

From June 9 to June 15, UNITE HERE Local 75, which represents food services workers on campus employed by Aramark, led a hunger strike to protest the university’s transition to internal food operations.

Inside Convocation Hall, the university handed out flyers to graduates and their families explaining that the commotion outside was due to the conflict over the transition of food service workers from a subcontract with Aramark to employment by the university itself, effective July 1.

Aramark workers have been in conflict with the university since January, when it was announced that the University of Toronto will take over food services at UTSG after its contract expires in July. Issues of guaranteed reemployment, the severity of probationary periods, the continuity of workplace seniority, and the debate over which union should represent the workers surround the transition.

Participating in the hunger strike

There were seven participants in the hunger strike, which included food services workers employed elsewhere and UNITE HERE international organizing director David Sanders, who said he would participate “halfway.”

Two of the participants were food services workers employed at U of T: Maria Goretti Frias, a campus cafeteria worker for over twenty years and Geneve Blackwood, who has worked as a cook at Sid’s Café for 15 years.

Frias told The Varsity before the strike that she was “very nervous, honestly very nervous. It’s going to affect our personal life.”

She continued, “We feel like we are mistreated. We are on probation, and they are taking our seniority over 30 years.”

“We’re trying to get through a point across campus,” said Blackwood. “They’re stripping us of everything and we don’t think that is right. They’re treating us as we’re new workers and we’ve been working for so long. It’s like we’re starting all over again for the same job we’ve been doing for years.”

The 250 Aramark workers have all been re-hired and they will represent the majority of the work force. There is a 90-day probationary period once they start employment under U of T; they will retain their original “date of hire” and receive a new “start date” under CUPE 3261.Protestors in support of UNITE HERE march on campus NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Changing employers, conditions

Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour. They will also receive U of T employee benefits, which include health plans, pension plans, vacation time, tuition waiver for spouses and children, and childcare assistance fund.

“CUPE also negotiated to ensure that the current Aramark employees are covered by the health plan as of day 1 of employment instead of the second month of employment as required by the Collective Agreement,” said CUPE 3261 president Allan James in an email to The Varsity.

“The most immediate issue is probation,” said Sanders. “During probation, you have zero job security, and for any reason at all, your employer can decide that you are not a good fit and therefore you are terminated. It is very normal for people to not make it through probation.”

On top of the concerns he expressed over the probation, Sanders claimed that some of the workers will not retain their jobs.

[pullquote-features]Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour.[/pullquote-features]

“The university announced at the very beginning that they expected that only 85 per cent of the people would continue with the university, implying that 15 per cent won’t make it through probation,” he said.

James explained that CUPE 3261 is in negotiations with the university to waive the probationary period. “In my four years as president of CUPE Local 3261, I have not heard of an employee being let go during the probationary period,” he added.

Anne Macdonald, the director of ancillary services, told The Varsity that the university administration remain uncertain about the origin of the 85 per cent retention statistic; the university has issued statements to the contrary.

Macdonald clarified that during the first town hall meeting between the university and the workers, a university top chef mentioned that 85 per cent of the workers would experience no change to their current duties, but that 15 per cent would experience some changes to their job requirements. Most of these changes would centre around workers handling fresh and local food, which was not the case under Aramark’s contract.

“For sure, we did not say that 85 per cent of the staff would retain their jobs and 15 per cent would go,” Macdonald said.

James echoed this sentiment: “We have no idea where anyone is getting this idea. We have directly asked U of T about this rumour and they have categorically denied the idea of only 85% of the employees making it through the probationary period.”

[pullquote-default]“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. ”[/pullquote-default]

UNITE HERE and CUPE 3261

At UNITE HERE’s recent rallies, several protesters held signs that read ‘CUPE 3261: Workers should help workers’ and ‘CUPE 3261: Why are you letting U of T hurt us?’

“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. That does not count as fighting as hard as you can to protect the interests of these members.”

Macdonald acknowledged this tense relationship: “I don’t think [relations between the two unions have] been friendly discussions.”

James said, “CUPE Local 3261 has no fight with UNITE HERE Local 75.”

The University of Toronto has a legally-binding agreement with CUPE 3261 for its employees’ collective bargaining. According to Macdonald, if UNITE HERE successfully legally challenged this agreement, that union could assume responsibility for representing the university’s food service workers. Until then, CUPE 3261 will be the sole representative of food services workers on campus.