By Jake MacAndrew, Gabriela Silva Ponte, Khushy Vashisht and Racy Rafique
Custodial and maintenance workers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) are starting job action Thursday with a work-to-rule campaign due to a pension dispute with the university.
“For the next few days, we’re going to be work-to-rule,” said Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 233 vice president Jason Vigilante to The Eyeopener in an update to media on April 12. CUPE Local 233 represents staff such as custodians, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and more at TMU.
If no resolution is met by the end of the weekend, Vigilante said workers will begin to strike on Sunday night at 10 p.m.
“As of Monday, we’ll be in full strike position, in full strike mode,” said Vigilante, who works as part of general maintenance at TMU.
“We’ll be actually picketing outside, picketing on campus,” he added.
When employees work-to-rule, they only “do their jobs exactly as outlined by the rules of their contract or job description,” according to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union website. This means that employees will not do anything beyond what is explicitly written in their contracts, including working over their allotted hours for the week or day.
A strike would entail a lack of proper ventilation in campus buildings, no support for plumbing or electrical issues and more, said Vigilante. He added that many of the CUPE 233 workers help to set up for exams—something that wouldn’t happen if job action occurs.
Winter 2023 exams at TMU are scheduled from April 17 to 29, according to the university’s website.
“The university does not anticipate any impact on the end of semester activity, exams or graduation,” said TMU in an email to The Eye.
CUPE 233 gave the university until 12:01 a.m. on April 13 to reach an agreement. This deadline was not met, according to a CUPE release sent to The Eye today.
“In terms of the wages, the university has come up since their previous offer, which is good to see. But we are still a little ways of where the union would like to be in terms of a wage settlement,” said Stephanie Van Stralen, CUPE’s national representative.
“This is historic. We’re people who usually quietly work away at keeping the university clean and operating smoothly. It takes a lot to get us riled up,” said Vigilante in the press release. “But we can’t be quiet when the employer unilaterally changes our pension plan and makes it so we’re paying a higher percentage than faculty.”
Members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike if the pension dispute is not resolved, according to an April 12 press release from CUPE. As of April 13—17 days after receiving a “no-board report,” according to a March 29 update on the TMU website—CUPE is legally able to begin a strike or lockout.
A “no-board report” is issued when a union and employer cannot come to a collective agreement. According to the Government of Ontario website, “a legal strike or lock-out may begin on the 17th day after the day the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development releases the no-board notice to the employer and the union.”
According to an April 12 CUPE media release, CUPE 233 has been in negotiations with the university over pension contributions since September 2022.
“Outstanding issues at the bargaining table also include job security and wages that keep up with the rising cost of living,” said the April 12 release.
The possible job action comes after years of negotiations and disputes between TMU and CUPE members, according to the release, which outlined how the university “took the unprecedented step of unilaterally imposing an increase in pension contributions on all employees” by 0.4 per cent in 2021.
An independent arbitrator found the university “had violated their collective agreement” in April 2022 after the Toronto Metropolitan Faculty Association (TFA) challenged the pension increase and filed a complaint, according to the April 12 CUPE release. In response to the ruling, the university corrected its rates, but “for faculty only.”
“The result is an inequitable plan, where maintenance and custodial workers are paying more than faculty for the same benefit,” said Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, in the media release.
According to their collective agreement, the average TFA salary, which includes associate professor, assistant professor and professor positions, was approximately $111,054.06 in 2022.
In comparison, the average salary for maintenance and trades CUPE 233 workers in 2021—for 40 hours of work a week—was approximately $69,198.83.
“This is an institution that changed its name because it says it’s committed to equality and equity,” said Hahn, to The Eye. “Yet it’s trying to just force on workers a mechanism where they will have no voice in their pension plan in a way that is inconsistent with what they’ve done for years.”
In an email to The Eye, the school said that “four of the five employee groups in the university’s pension plan, including its leadership, all contribute equally” and that it agrees with CUPE 233 that “there should not be a two-tiered pension plan.”
The university stated that members of the TFA are “the only employee group that contributes less than everyone else” because of the grievance and arbitration decision from 2022. “The university was, and remains, disappointed by this decision,” it said.
The university also said it has “engaged in on-going negotiations” with CUPE 233.
“The university has clearly indicated to the union that it is willing to continue discussions and is operating in good faith with the union. It is hopeful the union will continue to do the same,” the university said in the email.
“All these workers have been asking for is the same thing that already exists for faculty. It’s the fair thing to do. It’s shocking that the TMU administration makes lofty statements about equity while they’re actively promoting inequity in their workplace,” said Hahn in the media release.
On top of pension disputes, CUPE also alleged that “the university had secretly started a new practice in 2017 that claimed any pension contributions above the legal minimum were an employer-only credit.” An employer-only credit would allow TMU to “claim $8 million in pension contributions as owing to them,” CUPE further alleged.
“They’re unilaterally making workers pay more but at the same time filing documents that claim they can claw millions of dollars out of our pension fund,” alleged David Simao, chair of CUPE’s provincial university sector committee in the April 12 statement.
However, in an email to The Eye, the university said the allegations about secrecy are false and it “rejects any assertion that it has not been transparent.”
The university said the funds CUPE is referring to, which is a prior year credit balance, “is not a separate cash account or fund—it is an actuarial entry that is documented when a pension plan valuation report is filed.”
“The unions are aware of the prior year credit balance because of transparent disclosure of pension plan material shared with them by the university,” TMU said in the email. “The university has not used the prior year credit balance and has no intent to benefit from it at the expense of our employees.”
On March 29, CUPE 233 picketed at TMU’s campus near Lake Devo to provide information to the university community about possible job action.
Van Stralen told The Eye that the goal is to achieve fairness for staff who “are among the lowest wage workers on campus.”
“We’re here to raise awareness, raise our profile of our bargaining and educate the students,” Van Stralen said. “We want to pressure the university administration to come to a deal that addresses fairness around the pension for all union groups in the plan.”
This dispute is a result of lower wages and higher pension contributions combined with increasing living costs, Vigilante told The Eye.
“We are listening, we are working with the union groups and we understand the situation that is brought by the state of the economy, of inflation,” said Lachemi in a phone call with The Eye. Lachemi told The Eye that the university values the contributions of all of its employee dues and acknowledges the critical role of unions and their leadership.