CUPE Local 2278 has been bargaining for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) since August 2010. Upon termination of a 5 year long agreement (2005-2010) there were many issues the union was eager to canvass with the employer concerning the working conditions and compensation levels of TAs at the UBC Vancouver campus. Over the duration of the previous contract we tracked challenges in the employment relations faced by TAs at UBC. Through this process we identified general challenges faced by most of our members such as the need for more adequate office space, short unpaid leaves for thesis preparation and comprehensive and dissertation examinations. The right to be free from academic harassment was identified as a critical shortcoming on the part of the Employer which the Union had attempted to correct for years. The need for extended rehiring preference for teaching assistants that more accurately reflects the time it takes graduate students to complete their programs was more than obvious.
We also identified vulnerable sectors within our membership (such as international students and parents) and tabled proposals meant to protect them against the specific hardships they face as students and employees of UBC. Broadly, we observed that increasing tuition costs and increases in the cost of living over the years had positioned many of our members in difficult financial predicaments, impeding their ability to pursue academic success while maintaining a modest standard of living.
Our bargaining proposals, while certainly unable to remedy all of our members’ challenges, were meant to alleviate some of the hardships they face in their lives as employees and students at UBC.
Until February 2012 collective agreement negotiations were primarily limited to discussions on language (i.e., non-monetary items). While at the commencement of bargaining the Union indicated its intent to discuss monetary items with UBC, the employer indicated there would be no money on the table for TAs given the Province’s “net-zero” mandate. The premise of the “net-zero” mandate is that during these difficult economic times, the Province would allocate no money for increases in compensation to public employees. As UBC is a public institution the Union understood this to mean that no one at UBC would receive increases in their compensation packages.
The Union understood that no public sector employee would receive a pay increase during the “net-zero” Government mandate including University employees. We accepted that, with no dispute, and concentrated on bargaining improvements in the areas of language. However, the Employer added something significantly different to this Government mandate. The Employer stated that the University was in serious financial difficulty. We were told there was a 32 million dollar deficit and although this wasn’t a “sky is falling” explanation there were going to be administrative and faculty cuts in the 2-3% range.
We were told this was a period of “belt-tightening”.
The Employer stated that even if the “net-zero” mandate didn’t exist, CUPE 2278 members would not get a pay increase as the University couldn’t afford it. In other words, we were told at the table that the Government Mandate was only one consideration and that the University’s financial situation would not have allowed a pay increase for TAs. We were negotiating with a no change or improvement agenda.
As responsible members of the University community, we were collectively fine with that. In other words, we bought into the idea of a responsible membership in the University Community.
Given this understanding of the financial difficulties under which UBC was supposedly operating, the Union was grossly disappointed to discover that the University still felt compelled to pay increases to certain classes of employees at UBC. In January, the Union learned that employees at UBC earning over $75,000 in both 2010 and 2011 received an increase in compensation package of 2.92%.
Discovering this socio-economic reality at UBC that positions the more vulnerable workers at UBC (TAs and other workers) to accept zeros while the wealthier members of the UBC campus receive increases in compensation, the Union was also further disappointed that the employer refused to extend rehiring preference for TAs.
The University’s position on refusing to extend preference or job security is particularly disturbing given that their own reports indicate it takes much longer to complete graduate degrees than is commonly acknowledged. The University’s unwillingness to commit to providing employment security comesurate with completion times is particularly galling.
Because the net-zero mandate ends in August 2012 the Union was excited at the prospect of beginning to discuss our monetary proposals on behalf of our members. The Province’s mandate for 2012-14 is not “net zero,” but rather “cooperative gains”; under this new mandate, UBC would be able to offer monetary improvements to CUPE 2278’s CBA.
The Union was confused and disappointed when the employer expressed surprise at our monetary proposals given that we tabled our proposal in relation to what TAs at other Universities already enjoyed or sought what we considered reasonable improvements as an opening to monetary discussion. Since that time, we have had limited if any discussion about our proposals as we have been told that the University has yet to secure its new mandate from the Provincial Government.
To be clear: the employer has not presented a four-year monetary package at the table. Similarly, our monetary proposals were a starting point for negotiations – negotiations have not ended because of an unwillingness to negotiate on the part of the Union but rather because the Employer has yet to table an offer which they said they were preparing.
Given this lack of position on the part of the Employer, the Union was genuinely surprised that the Employer would file for mediation. To suggest that the Union and Employer are far apart in negotiating monetary items is odd as we haven’t been presented with a counter to our proposals.
Indeed, the Union is perplexed by the Employer’s calculations of 130% increase to our monetary proposals given that they have not provided any explanation or breakdown of our monetary items. Similarly, the Employer is well aware that the Union’s monetary package was a starting point for negotiations; it is not that the Union refuses to budge on its monetary proposals but rather that the Employer has yet to table a four-year monetary package that would open a negotiating dialogue between the Union and the Employer.
On 22 March 2012, the Union took a Strike Vote; 81% of votes cast were in favour of strike action. The Union took the Strike Vote with the aim of using a positive mandate to negotiate with the employer the best possible agreement.
The Union has been eager to engage in negotiations and is disappointed that the Employer would file for mediation without tabling a 4-year monetary proposal or formally come with a written position to the table.
The Union Leadership is enormously grateful to our members for your support in achieving a positive strike mandate. While we have yet to achieve our goals in the form of a new collective bargaining agreement that is acceptable to our membership (i.e. you) to date, your support for our bargaining position at the table will in the long-term assist us in achieving a better agreement with you and on your behalf.
As many of our members have indicated to us – yes, we are missing the opportunity to engage in job action this term given the mediation process initiated by the Employer. Prior to that, the Union was also somewhat reluctant to go on strike given that many of our members expressed their deep concern for their students, namely their desire to see their graduating students take their exams and move forward. However, because of the institutional relationship that we have with the employer and our desire to make the most gains while causing minimal hardship to our members, we are guardedly optimistic of the mediation process and/or failing progress through mediation continuing the struggle for better working conditions and compensation for our members with renewed energy and support come the Fall.
In conclusion, a new and fair agreement for UBC TAs is what CUPE Local 2278 has been first and foremost struggling towards all this time. We continue forward with this objective as we head into mediation. Prior to engaging in strike action we want to insure that we have exhausted all other avenues for achieving a fair and respectful agreement. We had concluded it would be less harmful to our members if we waited to see the employer’s offer (an offer they said they were in the process of preparing but which we have still not seen).
Given the Employer’s recent actions the Union remains vigilant in dealing with this Employer and their unwillingness to offer a fair agreement for UBC TAs. If the mediation process doesn’t produce an acceptable outcome, the Union will be pursuing more direct actions with its members come the Fall. We appreciate your ongoing support in this process and remain faithfully yours.
CUPE Local 2278: Executive Committee