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Custodial and maintenance workers at TMU begin protesting following strike

By Dexter LeRuez and Anastasia Blosser

Maintenance and custodial workers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) began striking on Monday due to a pension dispute with the university. 

Employees part of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 233 (CUPE 233), which represents staff such as custodians, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and more at TMU, picketed at the corner of Victoria and Gould Streets on Monday. 

CUPE 233 vice president Jason Vigilante told The Eyeopener in an interview that 95 of the 107 employees who provide maintenance and custodial services at TMU participated in the picket.

The strike comes following a work-to-rule job action by the union which began Thursday, as previously reported by The Eye. Work-to-rule is a type of job action in which employees do nothing outside of what is explicitly stated in their contract, according to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union website

The union has been in negotiations with the university over pension contributions since September 2022.

The job action comes after years of negotiations and disputes between TMU and CUPE members, according to an April 12 CUPE press release on its website, 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 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,” the email read. 

“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.

Despite paying more into the pension plan, CUPE 223 maintenance and trades workers make over $40,000 less a year on average compared to TFA employees, as previously reported by The Eye.

The union is demanding increased wages, job security and lowered pension contributions.

According to an April 12 press release on the CUPE website, CUPE 233 gave the university until Thursday at 12:01 a.m. to reach a solution. 

CUPE 233 also announced in the press release they would “escalate to full strike action on Monday if TMU does not address the concerns around cost of living and basic rights to bargain their pension.”

“Since we started the work to rule, the university hasn’t chosen to come talk to us,” Vigilante told The Eye at the picket. “We are hoping they will come back to the table. If not, we’re going to show them that we’re here to fight.”

TMU president Mohamed Lachemi said in an April 17 TorontoMet Today message that this is the university’s first labour dispute in 25 years.

Lachemi announced in the message that the university would continue exams and classes as scheduled despite the job action.

“The university is committed to smooth final weeks of the semester, with no impact on exams or graduation,” he said in the statement. 

Yashwa Saleem, a second-year business management student, said he’s noticed a difference on campus since the job action began. 

“Usually it’s quiet and clean enough to study but now I feel like it’s getting worse,” Saleem said. “There were no [air conditioners] working and even the washrooms in the library are really dirty.”

Azriel Kerbel, a second-year media production student and a member of the Marxist student group Socialist Fightback said students need to stand in solidarity with the striking CUPE 233 members. 

“The same people who are raising our tuition during a pandemic are the same people who aren’t increasing the wages of these workers,” said Kerbel. “[And] are the same people forcing them to pay into an unfair pension plan.” 

In an email to The Eye, the university said it agrees with CUPE 233 that “there should not be a two-tiered pension plan.”

Vigilante is calling on students to speak up about custodial issues around the school and express the necessity of CUPE members to the TMU community.

“The biggest support [students] can give to us is to report everything,” said Vigilante. 

“Any garbage they see, any dirty windows, anything broken, It’s too hot, it’s too cold, report all this, flood the help desk, let them know that we’re needed here,” he said.

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