Unions & admin adopt adversarial approach

As Queen’s lays off custodial staff amid union complaints, the Journal looks back on unions at Queen’s

A timeline of labour relations at Queen’s.
A timeline of labour relations at Queen’s.
Credit: 
Graphic by Michaella Fortune

As Queen’s faces a $456 million pension solvency deficit, many full-time jobs at the University have been reduced to part-time positions, according to the president of the local Canadian Union for Public Employees (CUPE).

CUPE 229, a branch of the nationwide union, represents approximately 260 full-time employees directly employed by Queen’s, 85-95 full-time Sodexo employees and 200-250 part-time Sodexo workers.

In April, the University laid off 17 custodial employees and reduced the hours for six other employees, from 37.5 to 20 hours per week.

The layoffs were part of “casualization” occurring at the University, where part-time workers replace laid-off full-time employees, said CUPE 229 President Pat Cummings.

“Basically, they earn quite a bit less money. They only work odd hours. They don’t get enough to support their families,” Cummings said. “In the 14 years I’ve been doing this, this is unique.”

Historically, Queen’s has had friendly relations with local labour organizations, according to Cummings — but the relationship has become more formal as more unions have formed.

Queen’s Human Resources Office has expanded greatly since the early 2000s, he added, and the union has more difficulty sitting down with the University than in the past.

“When I was sitting across the table in years gone by, you’d be sitting across from Human Resources people who didn’t have law degrees, as opposed to now,” he said. CUPE’s collective agreement with Queen’s states that employees must undergo a “trial” period before falling under CUPE’s jurisdiction. This period is three months for regular employees and six months for students, according to Cummings.

According to the agreement, which was signed in 2010, custodial employees should receive $23.31 per hour, as well as benefits such as paid vacation days and a dental plan after a year of employment.

In the past year, Cummings said, the University has hired part-time employees and let them go for two weeks before re-hiring them, which restarts the trial process.

“They consider that a break in service. We have grievances about what’s taking place,” he said.

As a result of layoffs, garbage pick-up has changed at the University, Cummings said, noting that office employees are now responsible for taking their waste to a central repository instead of having employees pick it up.

Custodial employees at the recently opened Isabel Bader Centre are contracted workers from a private Toronto firm, he added, so no employees represented by CUPE are working at the centre.

Cummings said this should be a safety concern, since part-time workers may not receive adequate support and training to provide services like cleaning and snow shoveling to the University.

Casual employees don’t have ownership of the work or commitment to their jobs in the same way that full-time workers do, he added, and the hourly wage of $12 an hour part-time workers receive is inadequate to meet basic needs.

“With the casualization of employees, you’re forcing people into food banks at lower wages,” he said.

Cummings said he hasn’t heard any response from the University on the issue, other than a statement from Physical Plant Services Engineering and Operations Director John Witjes in April, which noted that layoffs were done to prevent Physical Plant Services from running into a deficit.

University administration was unavailable to respond to requests for comment by deadline.

CUPE 229 is one of several labour organizations on campus. Two other CUPE organizations, CUPE 254 and CUPE 1302, also represent Queen’s support staff.

The Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) represents University faculty, such as professors and archives and library staff, while Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) 901 represents post-doctoral students, teaching assistants and teaching fellows.

The United Steelworkers Local 2010 (USW), meanwhile, represents over 1,100 Queen’s staff, including secretaries, clerks, academic assistants, nurses and support staff. The USW signed its collective agreement with the University in 2013.

Collective agreements set standards for work conditions, compensation, benefits and other work-related procedures for union members.

Queen’s has never experienced a faculty strike, although it came close in 2011, according to University Historian Duncan McDowall. While local CUPE branches have initiated strikes before, McDowall said, the current bargaining system is new to Queen’s faculty.

Prior to QUFA’s collective agreement with the University, signed in 1995, QUFA had a more collegial relationship with the administration, McDowall said.

“We’ve come a long way from the sense of collegiality in the 1960s, where they quickly arranged what they’re being paid, to the present, which is a pretty adversarial relationship,” he said.

McDowall said universities were “immune” to strikes at the faculty level in the 1950s and 1960s, since faculty members saw themselves as independent professionals rather than employees for a single employer.

QUFA was established in 1951, when it was a non-unionized organization designed to protect the collective rights of faculty. The organization now represents 1,200 faculty members.

QUFA originally had a friendly relationship with the administration, according to McDowall, and faculty members casually met with administration to discuss wages and hours.

“The Principal was always the annual invited speaker at [QUFA’s] Christmas dinner,” McDowall said. “You can’t imagine the auto workers having the president of General Motors at their annual dinner.”

Conditions changed after a financial downturn in the 1970s. Universities received less funding from the Ontario government, which suffered due to the international oil crisis and a worldwide economic recession.

Queen’s administration initially attempted to maintain the friendly relationship by arguing that Queen’s was unique among Ontario universities, McDowall said.

“They talked in terms of Queen’s spirit. It’s a good place, it’s a quality place,” he said. “Yeah, the folks at York may be getting two per cent more than you, but you’re at Queen’s.”

However, McDowall said, then-Principal Ronald Watts eventually created a system to discuss work conditions. In 1973, Watts formed a consultative group with five administrators and five faculty members to reach agreements on annual work conditions.

“In most years, the group came to a consensus. The faculty would go back to the group, say ‘we got nine per cent, we could have done better, but this seems as good as we can do’,” he said. However, the group’s decisions weren’t binding, and the Principal had the power to impose a decision on faculty.

This system broke down in the 1990s after two decades of financial difficulties for the University, McDowall said, leading to the current system of negotiation.

“The University’s fiscal situation never got back to where it was in the 1960s,” he said, adding that premier Bob Rae’s provincial government made sweeping budget cuts in the early 1990s, which reduced wages at Queen’s.

“You took ‘Rae days’, where you didn’t get paid at all for a day and stayed away from work.”

Faculty decided they needed a more comprehensive agreement after those cuts, McDowall added, since the consultative group wasn’t effective at preventing cuts to wages.

QUFA and the University reached a collective agreement in 1995, with a bargaining process that involved formal negotiations between the faculty and the administration.

Queen’s faculty has never gone on strike, but came close in 2011, when the Ministry of Labour passed a “No Board” report on July 29, which ended a conciliation period. A No Board report signifies that there was a failure to resolve differences through “conciliation”, where a government conciliation officer facilitated negotiations between Queen’s and the faculty members.

After the deadline, Queen’s and QUFA had 16 days to reach an agreement before a strike or lockout was legally possible. QUFA came to an agreement with Queen’s at 4:40 a.m. on Aug. 15 — almost five hours after the 16-day period had passed.

Other universities in Ontario have experienced strikes and protracted negotiations in recent years. In 2008, York University faced an 85-day strike by its local CUPE branch, which included contract professors, teaching assistants and graduate students.

Dalhousie University also narrowly avoided a strike in 2012 when a tentative agreement was struck with the Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA).

QUFA President Diane Beauchemin said it’s hard to say what conditions will lead to a possible strike.

“In 2011, QUFA members were brought to the verge of a strike because the Administration simply refused to negotiate until the 11th hour,” Beauchemin told the Journal via email.

She said the association has experienced an increased workload for faculty since unionization in 1995, as well as a less cooperative relationship with the university.

“As faculty and librarian concerns have turned more and more to working conditions, quality of education and questions of equity, the Administration’s focus has narrowed in on money issues even while the proportion of the University’s budget spent on faculty salaries has been in steady decline,” Beauchemin said.

She said the reduction of support staff, regular faculty, changing technology and “downloading of administrative duties”, where administrative tasks are given to faculty, have contributed to a larger workload.

“This divergence in interests has meant that negotiations are more adversarial and less cooperative in spirit,” she said.

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