Photo courtesy CUPE 3908 Unit 2's bargaining team.
Photo courtesy CUPE 3908 Unit 2’s bargaining team.

Over 77 percent of CUPE 3908 Unit 2 members voted ‘yes’ to give their bargaining team a mandate to call a strike if they cannot achieve a deal that they believe would satisfy the membership.

The strike mandate vote was held on January 29 after their employer, Trent University, rejected the demands for a new contract that addresses the needs of Unit 2 members.

“We want to have a serious negotiation with the university on the financial proposal that we have,” said the President of CUPE Local 3908, Stephen Horner who is also a member of the bargaining team, as being the purpose of strike mandate vote.

The primary concern is over wages, a point supported by a member of the bargaining team, Karen Everett, who indicated that the funding packages haven’t been increased for a long time, while tuition, on the other hand, has. So as tuition increases, the available financial options for  students decreases as well, she said.

Besides the wages, which was their first priority, the other key demands for the revised collective agreement was to negotiate the funding package such that they can have some control over it, explained Horner.

They also found that members felt the cost of health benefits coverage has increased, but the amount of the health benefits reimbursement has not, said Horner.

In addition, they want to increase the total amount of money available as well as the amount per member for professional development, he said.

Securing a strong strike mandate vote on financial aspects reflects that members consider it a strong priority, said Horner, The next step for them will be to continue to communicate with members and get directions from them as they prepare to negotiate with their employers.

As per their proposal, their last position will cost the university about a hundred thousand dollars per year for each of the next three years, says Horner. But their employer is willing to spend only a total of forty thousand dollars over the next three.

Given what they would be collecting in tuition, they think this is not acceptable.

In the last five years or so, none of the other groups on campus have been forced to take absolute wage freezes, but they are being told now that student workers needs to take a two years wage freeze, he said.

The bargaining team said that the amount of money the university can save by holding student workers to a wage freeze is very minimal. But on the other hand, the impact on student workers is very large and significant, so it doesn’t make any sense to take them to that position.

According to the bargaining team, Trent claims they have a mandate from the provincial government that they have to give two years of zero. Meanwhile, they understand that members from other universities in Ontario are offered wage increases every year, so they feel that Trent is out of line with what is going on in the rest of the province.

In the meantime, Horner informed that a ‘No Board’ is expected to be issued on February 10. He explained that once the ‘No Board’ comes out, there will be 17 days from that time to a strike or lock out day.

The difference between the strike and lock out is, if they decide to withdraw their services from the university then that is a strike, explained Horner. The employer also has the opportunity to say that since they haven’t negotiated a new collective agreement, they are locking them out and will not allow them to return to work, he explained.

During that 17 day period they will continue to negotiate and they have two days booked for bargaining: February 25 and February 26.

“However if we are not able to reach an agreement then we would be in a legal strike position. But it doesn’t mean that we will necessarily go on a strike,” says Horner.

The members of CUPE 3908 Unit 2 are the student academic workers at Trent, namely Graduate Teaching Assistants, Markers, Academic Assistants, and Computer Lab Advisors.

Meanwhile, CUPE 3903 at York University recently took a strike mandate vote. Likewise, CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto has also taken a strike mandate vote and are currently in negotiations.

Trent’s latest strike mandate vote by CUPE 3908 Unit 2 makes a total of three Ontario universities with administrations that are currently not able to come to terms with their student workers on issues that matter for their quality of work.