Service workers at TMU on strike for wages and pension equity

Toronto Metropolitan University unilaterally raised workers’ pension contributions, uses overage to pad bottom line 

PV Toronto Bureau 

Custodians, groundskeepers and maintenance workers at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) have been on strike since April 17, following a brief work to rule. The strike is the university’s first full scale work stoppage in decades, and strong showings on the picket lines indicate that the 110 workers, members of CUPE Local 233, aren’t backing down until their demands are met.

According to the union, there are two central outstanding issues which TMU needs to resolve if they want to see workers back at the job. The first is wages – the workers have been offered a 9.5 percent increase over the life of the contract by the bosses at TMU, but they feel this is unfair as faculty already have a 15 percent increase over the same period. Wage increases were frozen at 1 percent for three years by Bill 124, and inflation is eating away at workers’ wages across the country.

Differences between faculty and service workers animate the second, larger issue as well, which is the new arrangement for pension contributions. Last year, TMU unilaterally increased employee pension contributions of workers in different unions on campus. Unions argued that these un-negotiated increases were not only unfair but were in some cases a breach of contract.

The same contribution increases were foisted upon Local 233 workers and faculty, who are members of Toronto Metropolitan Faculty Association (TFA). The TFA grieved the change, arguing that member’s contributions were fixed in the CBA, and won the case when arbitrators ruled that the university had to cover the increases.

Now, Local 233 is fighting for the same rates that TFA won in arbitration. While they don’t have a similar contractual guarantee, they nonetheless feel it’s what’s right, so they have taken it to the picket line.

One strike committee member told PV that this two-tiered system is all too common in this line of work. “People have a tendency to punch down on service workers – especially when they compare us to [white collar] workers.” Stressing that the increases in wages they were asking for were barely keeping up with inflation, she said “It’s not like we’re asking for Mercedes Benzes or anything. Just enough to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and maybe a little extra for a night out on the weekend,” coupled with a fair deal on pensions to keep all university staff on an even keel.

Solidarity from students and other service workers

Morale on the line has remained high, and a large solidarity rally on April 27 included Toronto and York Region Labour Council President Andria Babbington, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn and federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Support has also come from TFA members and TMU students, many of whom have signed Local 233’s petition, walked on the line or dropped off coffee to show their support. “It’s been helpful, and it shows [the TMU board] that the other staff stand in solidarity with us,” a picketer member told PV.

It’s also a nice retort to some of the online student population, who have been expressing frustration about disruptions caused by the strike. “We’re not bothered by it,” said a strike committee member. “The overwhelming majority of the students we’ve come across support us and what we’re doing. They support us getting a contract we deserve,” she added, emphasizing that the union is more concerned with what happens on the picket line than with online chatter.

Another major supporter has been UNITE HERE Local 75, a local hospitality union, which has been sending members to the picket line. Local 75 Vice President Valrie Lue feels the connection between 233 and 75 is an obvious one. “Our members are in the service industry too. We have custodians, maintenance workers, and we’re used to people looking down on us, and thinking we deserve less just because we don’t sit in an office.” Lue says it’s past time that service workers in Toronto get their due. “One of the things that makes Toronto such a great place to live are places like [TMU], like the Roger’s Centre, and the entirety of our vibrant hospitality and tourism industry. But workers who make up these institutions can’t afford to live in the city they make great.”

University lining its pockets with membership’s contributions

The union says that the pension dispute stands to improve TMU’s bottom line. The TFA’s arbitration revealed that the pension plan’s actuarial cost, which the university used as the pretense for contribution increases, has not risen but had actually fallen dramatically over the course of the dispute.

Originally, the pension board had forecast an increase in actuarial cost in 2019 and had raised employee contributions accordingly. But now, even though costs are below their original 2019 contribution amount, workers are still paying rates based on the projected increase.

Through this cost disparity, there is a two-tier system between TFA and CUPE members and a contribution arrangement in which the university stands to profit.

The pension administrator’s Prior Year’s Credit Balance (PYCB) has been slowly accumulating the approximately 5-7 percent overage coming out of CUPE member’s contributions. The union notes that these “over-contributions” are deposited in the PYCB account and can then be used to fund the employer’s mandatory contributions to the pension. In effect, this means that the employer is pocketing the increase that they unilaterally applied to members, an increase which has already been found in one case to be an unlawful breach of contract.

Employers taking actions like these make it clear why Canada is seeing its largest strike wave in decades. From the strike by 155,000 federal public service workers to the tens of thousands more public sector workers whose contracts are coming up this summer, the stage is being set for some true battles.

People’s Voice encourages readers to support CUPE 233 by joining a picket line and by signing the union’s petition to TMU. On May 1, the union launched a full “donor boycott” of TMU and is making a direct appeal to all current and prospective donors to suspend their financial support.

[Photo: CUPE 233]

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