Following the success of federal Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) workers strike last month, PSAC 901 feels excited to enter discussions with the University about wage increases for graduate student workers.
When the current collective agreement between PSAC 901—the union representing graduate and postdoctoral workers at Queen’s—and the University was ratified in March 2022, graduate student workers received a one per cent wage increase due to limits set by Bill 124.
In an interview with The Journal, PSAC 901 President Justyna Szewczyk El Jassem described the national increase in union activity as being “motivating.”Bill 124 was introduced by Premier Doug Ford in 2019.
The law previously capped wage increases for all public sector workers to one per cent each year.
In November 2022, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled Bill 124 unconstitutional, claiming the bill substantially interfered with the Charter rights of unions.
According to El Jassem, PSAC 901 members fell under the constraints of Bill 124 since Queen’s University receives government funding.
Workers involved in caretaking and maintenance at the University, represented by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 229, and general support staff represented by the United Steelworkers (USW) 2010 were impacted by this bill.
“We were not allowed to ask for more than 1 per cent salary increase,” she said.
The Ford government has since motioned to have Bill 124 reinstated, with the appeal set to be heard in June 2023. Until this happens, unions can reopen negotiations with their employers to achieve wage increases.
Unions on Queen’s campus have joined together as one group called the “Unity Council.” They’re working to meet with the University to reopen wage negotiations for unionized workers across campus.
“Our argument in organizing this campaign on campus is the legal status quo is as if [Bill 124] never existed,” El Jassem said. “Let’s go back and let’s talk about our wages, because it was kept way below inflation rate.”
“Having seen what PSAC federal workers achieved, it is motivating. Because we can say it’s not impossible [to get] such an increase.”
According to a Unity Council town hall presentation El Jassem shared with The Journal, the University claims it has not finalized its view on the Bill 124 issue as it pertains to increasing wages.
In a written statement to The Journal, the University said it continues to actively monitor the situation.
“The impact of the Bill 124 proceedings continues to be actively reviewed by university leadership, including the context of the university budget and the recent deficit announcement,” the University said. “We address Labour Relation matters directly with our unions and respect their leadership roles on behalf of our represented employees.”
The current collective agreement between PSAC 901 and the University was ratified in March 2022, and will be in place until April 30, 2024.
With the collective agreement set to expire in April 2024, the door opens for PSAC 901 to consider what conditions it wants to see addressed in the next agreement.
Last year, PSAC 901 members voted to mandate a strike after negotiations with the University reached its ninth month. El Jassem said strike mandates occur as a nuclear option when a bargaining team reaches the end of their rope.
PSAC 901’s 2022 strike mandate is one example of several measures taken as union activity increases.
Last month, Canada saw the biggest strike in public facing industries when roughly 155,000 workers across 28 federal departments and agencies under PSAC walked off the job.
After two weeks of picketing, government workers secured a 12.6 per cent wage increase to be given over four years. In November 2022, Ontario education workers under CUPE picketed after Premier Doug Ford invoked the notwithstanding clause as part of the Keeping Students in Class Act.
At the university level, graduate student workers at Carleton University represented by CUPE Local 4600 went on strike in March of this year. Teaching and research assistants at Simon Fraser University have been in negotiations with the University for a three year period, while a current bid to unionize research assistants at University of British Columbia is being contested at the province’s labour board.
Looking to future bargaining periods, El Jassem said she doesn’t know if PSAC 901’s efforts will result in a strike like with federal PSAC workers.
“We really don’t know how our bargaining is going to go,” she said. “It is also very difficult to organize [a strike]. There’s a lot of organizational work behind the scenes that has to be put into this. No one takes this decision lightly.”
“It’s always an option. It can happen only during the bargaining period.”
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