By Gabriela Silva Ponte and Kinza Zafar
Federal New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh came out to support maintenance and custodial workers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) at a picket on April 27.
“Workers deserve salaries that keep up with inflation,” said Singh in his picket speech.
The picket occurred on Gould and Victoria Streets after Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 233 (CUPE 233) members, including custodians, groundskeepers, maintenance workers and more at TMU, began rallying on April 17, as previously reported by The Eyeopener.
The union has been in negotiations with the university since September of last year regarding a pension dispute and increased wages, as previously reported by The Eye.
CUPE 233 vice president Jason Vigilante said the union has been “low key” for the past two weeks out of consideration for students during exam season.
“A lot of the work we do is for the students. So we don’t want to disrupt their lives more than we have to,” he said.
President Lachemi said in an April 17 TorontoMet Today message to the community that this is the university’s first labour dispute in 25 years. The university has yet to reach an agreement with the union.
But it told The Eye in an April 28 email that it has “provided CUPE 233 with a competitive and fair offer that is in line with other recent settlements internally and with the broader public sector.”
CUPE 233 said it will notify its membership if the university decides to “negotiate a fair deal,” in an April 27 update.
“The employer still does not have another mandate than what was last offered to us on April 12. But, the parties do have an open line of communication,” the update reads.
Singh told The Eye that TMU president Mohamed Lachemi requested to meet with him. But Singh said he was only willing to meet if Lachemi joined the picket line.
“The president wanted to meet and I’m happy to meet with presidents across the country,” Singh said at Thursday’s rally. “But if the workers are striking, I’m not going to cross the picket line to meet [him].”
The university said in the April 28 email that it has tried to “minimize any impact on our students and to protect the health and safety of our community during this period.”
Vigilante said the Toronto Metropolitan Students’ Union (TMSU) has been supporting striking workers throughout this campaign. The TMSU posted about the rally on its Instagram page, urging students to support the workers.
“The student union has been bringing us out coffee every day. They’ve been helping out as much as they can,” said Vigilante.
He added that the school’s Board of Governors members have had management workers do the cleaning.
“But they’re not obviously qualified to do a lot of these jobs,” said Vigilante.
The university said in the April 28 email that it is “disappointed” that the union is “not sharing accurate information” regarding the dispute.
“The university’s contingency plans are in accordance with health and safety requirements, and all individuals assigned to support required Facilities Management and Development activities are provided with the necessary PPE where applicable to complete the work,” the university said.
CUPE president Fred Hahn said in his speech on April 27 that workers are fighting for what they “deserve” and that they won’t “settle.”
“It’s really important for students to be involved and supportive. These workers might not always be the ones that students see, but they’re the ones they rely on in so many ways to keep the buildings clean and safe,” he told The Eye.
CUPE 223 has also received support from other local unions. Hahn said in his speech that the Ontario Federation of Labour donated $5000 to CUPE 233’s strike fund on Thursday. According to the April 27 CUPE 233 update, CUPE Local 1750 donated $2250 and CUPE Local 4948 donated $500 toward strike efforts.
Singh said in his speech that wages should increase as the cost of living rises.
“Workers are being disrespected, they’re not being treated fairly and so that’s why the solidarity is so important,” said Singh.
In a phone call with The Eye, Lachemi said that the university values the contributions of all of its employee dues and acknowledges the critical role of unions and their leadership.
“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,” Lachemi said.