On Campus

Ont. dismisses combined bargaining for university unions

Union officials are pushing for bargaining process similar to provincial school boards

Co-ordinated bargaining for all universities across Ontario is not being considered by the province despite a second university going out on strike since the school year began, the government said Thursday.

Some 3,400 contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants walked off the job at York University in Toronto after the midnight deadline passed.

Union officials have argued for a provincewide bargaining process similar to the one used with school boards, but the minister responsible for colleges and universities said that isn’t going to happen.

“I respect the autonomy of the institutions when it comes to our universities,” said John Milloy. “I’m confident that both sides are going to work to find an agreement that’s in the best interests of the students at York.”

The province could save time and money through combined bargaining, said Fred Hahn, secretary-treasurer for the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“It’s the same idea we’re talking about for universities… that we think would be good for the entire broader public sector quite honestly,” said Hahn.

The same thing happens at Ontario hospitals, and could be applied to nursing homes and social services agencies, he noted. “There could be great cost-efficiencies held just by having some kind of provincial bargaining structure.” In the current economic climate, it’s not just public sector workers that bear the burden of fiscal belt-tightening, Hahn said.

“The government has to start to think about ways of doing things differently,” he said. “The provincial government has a great role to play in developing efficiencies and saving resources.”

Christina Rousseau, chairwoman of CUPE Local 3903 which represents the striking York workers, conceded her members are better off than most in Canada but doesn’t feel that combined bargaining would negatively impact them.

“If we could use our status as having one of the better agreements to help make other locals in the sector better, I think it’s something we can do,” said Rousseau. “It’s the best of out of a bunch of collective agreements that are nowhere near adequate.”

Milloy wouldn’t speculate on how much time the sides at York might have to reach a deal before considering any back-to-work order.

But Hahn insisted combined bargaining has been shown to expedite the process. “Local unions that might spend a year at the table have been able to reach agreements in two months,” said Hahn.

In September, more than 1,000 professors, librarians and part-time teachers went on strike at the University of Windsor. That delayed the start of classes for some 16,000 students for more than two weeks, meaning the fall semester had to be extended.

There’s concern an extended strike at York could extend classes into the summer. Dave Tovee, 24, a fourth-year geography student from Huntsville, Ont., worried about the job prospects for graduating students.

“It could really jeopardize their chances of coming out with the field of graduates from other schools,” said Tovee.

The striking workers at York are seeking an 11 per cent wage increase over two years, compared to the 9.25 per cent hike over three years being offered.

“But when you look at the wages and benefits packages together, it actually ends up being 2.3 that they’re offering us per year,” Rousseau said.

The Windsor agreement included a nine per cent wage hike over three years.

York graduate assistant Dave Blocker, 24, said he and his peers get between $10,000 and $14,000 for the year, which isn’t enough.

“Based on what I’m getting from York, I’d be living well below the poverty line,” Blocker said. “When you subtract the tuition payment of some $5,000 for the year, that leaves virtually nothing to live on… especially when you’re trying to live in Toronto.”

-The Canadian Press

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