cademic workers at the University of Toronto have signed a new tentative agreement, the result of weeks of negotiations ending in a marathon 26-hour bargaining session last Thursday and Friday.
“Throughout this process [the University of Toronto] was asking for concessions,” said Amy Conwell, Chair of CUPE 3902 in the final bargaining update video that the committee uploaded to their YouTube page on March 26. “We did not have any of those concessions included in the Tentative Agreement.”
The success of the negotiating campaign comes after weeks of membership engagement, multimedia updates, and strike preparations.
Looming large over the negotiations was Bill 124, Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. Passed in 2019 by the governing Progressive Conservatives, the bill freezes pay increases to one percent for public sector workers. Ontario’s inflation rate is currently 1.1 per cent during the pandemic. It was two per cent in 2020, and 1.5 per cent in 2019.
Effectively, Bill 124 is a pay cut across the sector, as the cost of living out paces the one per cent cap. Much of organized labour in Ontario denounced this bill, including a charter challenge by the Ontario Nurses Association describing the bill as “a continued attack on the right to free and collective bargaining.”
The University of Toronto made it clear early in the bargaining period that any pay increase was off the table. On February 17, the membership of local 3902 delivered a strong 90.6 per cent strike mandate vote with over 3,200 members participating.
A few weeks later, the university announced a retroactive pay increase of one per cent for several union locals’ memberships, as well as other workers whose contracts had been frozen and extended due to the pandemic in 2020. The university also came back to 3902’s bargaining committee with a one per cent pay increase on the table after the vote.
Overwork, Finding Work
Local 3902 Unit 1 represents 8,000 teaching assistants and course instructors. The membership is the largest union local at the university and helps informally advance the standards of union contracts on campus. Members of local 3902 Units 2 and 4 will also enter bargaining in the coming months.
"Cupe 3902 is the largest union within Cupe Ontario's university sector" said David Simao, Chair of CUPE's Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee.
"One of the things we often see is pattern bargaining. Universities look at the biggest universities and biggest locals to follow their trend, because they want to be in line with the most prestigious universities and the biggest contracts." Simao added that the one per cent pay increase that local 3902 secured is an example of this that will likely have effects on bargaining new university contracts across Ontario.
There are several points of improvement across the contract. Among the demands the union brought to the table during negotiations last month are long-standing sources of workplace precarity.
“Overwork is a big issue,” said Conwell. “People are not given enough hours for their work.” As a result, Conwell says that many members became accustomed to working informal extra hours without being compensated. The union pushed for all work to be distributed to hired workers in the unit, with caps at 20 hours per appointment, and 40 hours per department. Previously, much of this work was assigned in a non-systematic way to existing workers, resulting in regular overwork.
Conwell added that the hiring criteria from the university was often “unreasonable” for the posted positions, and that significant gains had been made on this front. Members previously described a lack of transparency in hiring, and difficulty in finding job postings at the university.
“A centralized job website…is so important,” said Diana Michelle Barrero, a member of local 3902 and a student at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). She previously had to scour several department websites to find a selection of positions that she could apply for. She would often later find out about additional postings with close or passed deadlines. 3902 was able to secure a “[n]ew centralized job posting website” to be developed by the university, in consultation with the union.
In addition, the university agreed to remove the opaque “departmental hiring policies” of previous years, and will replace this with published “Funding Practices.” Within this, there is a formalized process to file a complaint if a worker suspects their funding is incorrect. Hiring criteria for teaching assistants and course instructors has been simplified.
The one per cent pay raise was also won for all members, and is retroactive to January 1, 2021.
“They went around a couple of weeks ago postering the hell out of the downtown campus,” said Carson Hammond, a member of 3902 and a steward in the Department of English.
Hammond joined the Communications Committee in preparation for this bargaining round. Using some basic online tools, Hammond helped design the posters that were put up around Toronto. “We wanted lots of pictures circulating all over the place…[to] show confidence and to demonstrate that we’re engaged.”
Indeed, several rank and file members of local 3902 who spoke to The Hoser were pleased with the way the executive and bargaining committee posted regular updates. Local 3902’s YouTube and Facebook pages were particularly active. Members who had worked at other union workplaces said they saw this as an improvement compared to previous experiences.
“I wasn’t able to attend all the meetings,” said Barrero. “But I know that I am getting the updates regardless, whether it’s through social media or email,” she said. The updates went beyond occasional report backs about what the bargaining committee was doing.
Externally, the union ramped up their physical presence even further with in-person action. On March 24, members of 3902 spread out across several spots throughout the city and distributed strike preparedness kits to picket captains and their teams.
Signs were adorned with messages such as “CUPE: Ready to Strike” and “U of T Works Because We Do.” The bargaining committee credited the strike preparedness day’s strength as a large reason why the tentative agreement ended in a good place.
Training and Equity
The University of Toronto has been the centre of a well-documented student mental health crisis for several years, including tragic incidents of student suicides and forcible removals. Course instructors and teaching assistants are often the front line of mental health support for students. These can be informal interactions that lie outside the scope of the job description and training.
Local 3902 pushed for a more open and systematic, easily accessible, paid training system. Equity, sensitivity, and inclusion training was previously accessible and mandatory for the first individual teaching appointment. Many academic workers get new and different appointments over the course of their years at the university, but there was no mandatory or easily accessible training. Workers had to request training approval from their supervisors, which could be denied.
The tentative agreement now guarantees paid training every year for a host of issues including students in crisis, pedagogical training, and social justice and equity issues training. Departmental and course specific training, stipends for first time course instructors to integrate training, and clauses barring unreasonable training request denials were also added.
According to the unions bargaining objectives document, the union pushed for on-campus harm reduction focused crisis supports. The University of Toronto assured the union that they are working to improve emergency crisis supports on campus, and added that this is not within the union’s bargaining purview.
Perhaps among the most pandemic-relevant issues within the contract was a demand for more paid sick days. Conwell said there is no culture of people accessing and using their sick leave, and many members are unaware of their option to not come to work sick, even before the pandemic.
Thresholds for eligibility for the available three paid sick days have been lowered.
Access to pregnancy and parental leave has also been made more transparent, and workers on parental leave are entitled to four months of leave with pay and health benefits, regardless of their contract end date. Further, compassionate leave can be used non-consecutively, and to care for dependents.
Local 3902’s tentative agreement is over 100 pages long. A summary of the major gains was published by the bargaining committee after the final bargaining session. Members have until April 1st at 6PM to vote, with the results to be released Friday or sooner.