Following up on today’s new Guelph Politicast, I talked to the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3913 about the negotiations with CUPE 1281 from their point of view, and what they’re goals are so far as the difficulties in reaching an agreement.
“The content of the current collective agreement allows employees of CUPE 3913 to run a lot of our local, so it takes away from us being a member run organization,” explained Ashley Wilson, president of CUPE 3913. Specifically, Wilson pointed to the fact the CUPE members are trained by staff rather than fellow members, and that presently language in the agreement says that decisions are only allowed to be made with the advisement of staff.
“Those kinds of things really undermine our ability to function, so the union thinks these are concessions because it’s changing the power dynamic, but it’s not a concession in the sense that we’re asking for changes to the monetary aspect of the collective agreement,” Wilson added. “We’re not grabbing away at benefits or things like that, in fact we’ve increased a lot of the benefits language and we’ve agreed to a significant wage increase.”
Wilson explained that this is not a sudden thing, CUPE 3913 and other other union locals like it have been re-orientating the way they’re being managed for some time. “It’s been a slow reversal of the power dynamic,” she said. “It hasn’t happened all at once, it hasn’t happened over the last year of negotiations, it’s been happening over a period of time and you can see that those changes have inserted themselves over the last decade.”
In response to one of the things said by Manuel Marques in regards to how negotiations have been handled, Wilson said 3913 has had limitations, but they were bargaining in good faith. In fact, according to Wilson, there were gaps in availability of when CUPE 1281 could meet, and that they had to wait a month to get that first sitdown with their employee. As to the lack of all day sessions, Wilson said that the nature of her union makes it difficult to put aside a whole day for bargaining.
“There’s a tradition in bargaining to start at the break of dawn and to bargain until the end of day, and our negotiating committee just can’t handle that,” Wilson said. “We’re all volunteers in these positions, we’re all graduate students, plus everybody on this committee has at least one part-time job. That’s the nature of an academic local, it’s not a typical employment relationship.”
She added, “During mediation we have gone for whole days, it’s very difficult for the negotiating team to do that.”
As for the last session before the lockout, Wilson confirmed that the final offer the union made was of the “take it or leave it” variety, but with a caveat. “We said ‘This is the final offer that we can make,’ and the offer that we made was based on having heard CUPE 1281’s comments, and we made a lot changes to the proposals and the articles they gave us insight on,” she explained.
Marques said in the podcast that he was presented with a proposal with some 200 concessions, and given an hour to read through them. Wilson remembers it different saying that there were only about 10 new articles with new information coming directly from feedback with 1281 negotiators, much of the rest of the deal was as it was presented back in initial meetings in October. “Our idea was that we wanted to know if it was worth staying there, if there were a few changes we could make, and [they] could be happy, then they could let us know and we’d stick around,” Wilson said. “We know that we’re not perfect, and that there were loopholes in some of the proposals we put forward that have consequences we didn’t intend.”
The lockout began on February 16, the Thursday before the beginning of Reading Week, by the time students came back to class this past Monday, there was either going to be an agreement or their TAs were going to be on strike. Given the pressure, it must have surely been hard to reach that last minute deal without having staff support.
“It’s been a long time since staff acted as lead negotiator in contract negotiations with the University of Guelph, and that has been the case for over six years now,” said Wilson. “Of course Manuel’s support is crucial and appreciated, but he acts as part of a committee with six or seven other people. As an academic local with a lot of people moving around, we’re always kind of prepared for the possibility of a committee member to not be available.”
“We don’t feel like we got a different agreement than we would have had the negotiations with 1281 hadn’t been ongoing,” Wilson added.
As to the open state of negotiating, Wilson said its the nature of the beast when you have 2,500 members. “It’s not possible for that information to be confidential,” she explained. “In this situation, which is really unusual because we’re a union and we’ve locked out another union, there’s a lot of response from the labour community and the campus community, and people need to know that information. We feel there are no labour laws being breached, CUPE 1281 knows this is a responsibility to our members.”
So as she and the 3913 negotiating team were looking to the end of this week and meeting with 1281 again, what was Wilson looking at it terms of a positive outcome? “A good agreement to us means that we will be able to run our union again,” she said adding that she was cautiously optimistic about reaching a deal.
“I’m hopeful that it will be closer to what CUPE 1281 will consider an acceptable agreement while maintaining the goals that we have in getting a collective agreement that works for us,” she added. “But it’s hard to say because CUPE 1281 seems to see any change that we’re trying to make as an attack on the union rather than as an attempt to gain control of our own.”