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It’s been a taxing autumn for education workers under the Canadian Union of Public Employees across Ontario.
Negotiations, stonewalling and strike-breaking plagued progress between CUPE-OSBCU’s bargaining team and the provincial government.
What occurred as a result was a province-wide game of chicken between workers and the government, with negotiations remaining in limbo until the eleventh hour.
While a new contract was narrowly accepted by education workers this week,, many across the province remain on edge after such an extended, public confrontation.
While the larger conflict devoured headlines, other engagements were being fought by individual CUPE locals.
CUPE 3902 is the local union for TAs and graduate-level educators at the University of Toronto.
As tensions rose between CUPE and the province, 3902 was fighting its own quiet battle. In the weeks leading up to the planned general strike, the local was flooded with proposed cuts to its primary health care benefits.
While this kind of treatment was being felt by CUPE divisions across the board, 3902 was having the rug pulled out.
“The employer came to us and said that they needed to cut several hundreds of thousands of dollars and offered two alternative ways that we could cut benefit levels,” says Amy Conwell, president of local 3902.
As Conwell was faced with offering her divisions – made up of mostly graduate students – bad or worse options, she mobilized those within 3902 to plant their feet, dig in and not budge.
“Alternative one, would have reduced our dental by 10 per cent, it would reduce vision care for graduate students by 80 per cent and it would reduce mental health services by 10 per cent. This, of course, would hurt a lot of people. There was also an overall 35 per cent cut proposed to our health care spending account, which is meant to cover all other areas of additional coverage,” says Conwell.
According to Conwell, the substantial dent in the additional spending account was further twisting the knife.
“If you have a dental procedure that’s not covered in the plan, that’s what it’s there for. If you have to have an extra session with your psychologist, that’s what it’s there for. So when you cut vision, mental health and the health care spending account, you’re essentially cutting it — twice,” says Conwell.
This was only the first offer provided by the U of T.
Offer number two, according to Conwell, would have reduced dental by 12 per cent, and in lieu of any cuts to mental health, completely axe vision care altogether.
This disregard for employee well-being tested Conwell’s patience and provided a reason for 3902 to rebuke any further negotiation. There was potential for going back to the board and getting a third option, but, Conwell and her team considered further negotiation moot.
“Of course, we could have gone back to the employer and said ‘we don’t like option one or two, so here’s option three.’ But you know what, why?
“There’s a cost of living crisis, the ramifications of a pandemic and a tsunami-like mental health crisis on campus. Why would we actively seek to lower benefits levels for our largest unit?”
Local unions are split up into units. Unit 1 was the primary branch being impacted by the U of T’s proposed cuts. For context, Unit 1 currently has over 9,000 employees, all of which were at risk of being impacted by the cuts.
Due to negligence on behalf of U of T’s administrative team, it wasn’t just Unit 1 at risk. The cuts would also impact members of Unit 7 which are composed of 200 to 300 employees who work as research associates and are also graduate students.
“They have what we call a ‘me too clause,’ so whatever Unit 1 has as a health plan, they have it too. So whatever impacts Unit 1 will impact Unit 7 – this was never acknowledged by the employer,” says Conwell.
Conwell made the call that no moves would be made until every last crumb of data was presented to her team. By the end of September, Conwell was provided with an analysis by U of T showcasing that mismanagement in spending had occurred, which served as the spark for the sweeping cuts that followed.
Upon receiving this information, Conwell made sure that any members who were impacted would be notified of what was exactly happening and when it was supposed to take effect, a move that did not thrill U of T.
“The employer was not delighted with the approach, they understood we needed to consult members but they didn’t appreciate how we were going about it,” says Conwell.
The hostility that Conwell and her team received from U of T for simply consulting those who would have their health negatively impacted by these cuts mobilized 3902 into action.
Like any quality act of resistance, it took equal measures of timing, planning and execution.
“We created an incentive for future action for organizing against prospective healthcare cuts, and we had many members sign up. We then decided to send individual letters to faculty and department chairs and collective letters to departmental leadership,” says Conwell.
Additional moves included 3902 making a press release while also helping those at risk by obtaining additional support through grants and counselling services.
Once safeguards were in place, Conwell and the local began to make sure this kind of bureaucratic suckerpunch would never happen again. With all union members mobilized, the opportunity to enhance strike threats through 2023 and 2024 emerged, with stronger commitments to bargaining principles.
While internal organization within 3902 was taking place, a larger conflict dominated the public sphere: the CUPE-OSBCU strike and the closure of classrooms across the province.
“We were ready, we could have participated in a general strike, so when the general strike became such a possibility, we were in a good position,” says Conwell.
Once CUPE called for a general strike, 3902 had to assess their own situation and put out a call for their local members to see if they were on board with joining the picket line.
Not only was the local ready, but they were also gathering allies.
“We weren’t the only local gearing up. There were other locals that were all talking amongst the university sector. Specifically, I was in touch with academic locals that I know for a fact were having the same conversations,” says Conwell.
While a general strike was narrowly avoided, 3902 was still left in limbo when it came to the state of the proposed benefit cuts.
After weeks of stipulation, the halting of CUPE’s general strike ended up lining up with 3902’s demands. Conwell and her team were notified of their victory a day before they were ready to strike.
“We got a proposal from our team last week, notifying us that an agreement was reached Sunday night, and then we discussed whether or not we were going to go on a general strike on Monday. Perhaps our employer was aware of the fact that we were going in that direction,” says Conwell in regard to the events of late November.
The demands of the local were met, and any prospective changes toward the benefit cuts had been halted. However, as the dust settled, 3902 began to mobilize further to protect its members.
“We will need to change the health care plan so that levels of coverage cannot only be maintained but also increased. We’re ready to respond and have an engaged membership,” says Conwell.
This focus on making sure the budget is available for further claims is not simply out of the desire to stop incoming cuts, but more so, out of a critical analysis of years past that came with Conwell’s research.
When looking back at the past budget for the local, Conwell noticed that certain care needs were trending upward, indicating a need for a substantially larger healthcare purse — especially for mental health requirements.
“We see mental health growing from $650,000 dollars in claims in 2019 to 2020, whereas from 2021 to 2022, $1,200,000 in claims,” says Conwell.
Conwell further attributes this spike to the fact that there was an increased number of members that were added to the plan — which the plan did not account for — and the additional stress of mental health requirements as a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a victory secured and strategies being implemented to ensure increased worker safety, Conwell and her team are going into any further bargaining meetings with a renewed sense of purpose. Considering workers’ needs are only rising, the days of playing nice appear to be over.
“We’re activated, we’re enraged and we’re paying attention.”