CUPE, UVic return to bargaining table

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After almost two years of negotiations and two weeks of job action, UVic union employees intensified their job action before returning to the bargaining table on Sept. 18.

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 917, 951 and 4163 have been negotiating their collective agreements since October 2010. In June of this year, UVic offered them wage hikes of two per cent for 2012 and 1.5 per cent for 2013. Instead of responding to the offer, CUPE 917 and 951 served strike notice on Aug. 31 and went on strike Sept. 5. 

CUPE 4163, UVic’s educational employees’ union, has opted not to strike, “mainly because over one-third of the members will be new this fall and will need time to get oriented and informed” according to the union’s website. 

One CUPE 4163 member, a Chemistry master’s student and teaching assistant, spoke to the Martlet on condition of anonymity, saying he feared he would compromise his future employment opportunities by speaking out against any union job action. 

“Grad students were told that if they crossed [the picket line], they would get their wage, but only if they were teaching,” said the source, who owes student loans. He pointed out that classes would likely be cancelled, making it impossible to get his regular wage even if he wanted to. “If it goes on for more than a couple days, I have to go somewhere else in order to find work.” Although teaching assitants are eligible for strike pay, the pay would not kick in until the 10th day of job action if CUPE 4163 voted to strike or its members acted in solidarity with other unions on strike. 

Both the unions and UVic hope it will not come to this. UVic Communications manager Bruce Kilpatrick said CUPE locals 917, 951 and 4163 informed UVic on Sept. 6 that they were ready to return to negotiations. The parties formally agreed that bargaining would resume on Sept. 18. While negotiations have resumed, job action has been suspended. But until the negotiations began, job action escalated.

“It’s unusual that they kept up job action. Labour relations conventions are, unless you are in a full-blown strike, when you are returning to the bargaining table, you suspend job action or greatly reduce it,” said Kilpatrick. 

The negotiations, which are still underway, were planned so that each local would have a day to sit down with the university. Discussions this time around will involve non-monetary issues, which includes fine-tuning contract language.

“The ball is in the employer’s court,” said Rob Park, president of CUPE 951, the union that represents office, technical and childcare workers on campus. “If they can fix some of those non-monetary things, it allows us to focus our fight on somebody who can actually deal with it.

“It’s a positive sign that we’re getting back together to discuss the issues. That’s the only way we’ll get to an agreement. We’re hoping . . .  we’ll make some progress at least on those items,” he said. 

With respect to wages, the unions are waiting to see what happens with the ongoing labour dispute between the provincial government and the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU). 

Since the strike began, the locals have picketed the Facilities Management Building and the Campus Security Building, reducing services in each. On Sept. 17, 50 members moved their pickets to the campus bookstore. Housekeeping services in residences, which are provided by CUPE 917 members, were also reduced.

Park said the decision to move to the bookstore was informed by the new Bell cell phone kiosk inside the store. The unions see this as the first move towards privatizing UVic, which has been hinted at via government documents that surfaced last month.

“This new [kiosk] is actually contracting out work, so that sort of put the bookstore out front as far as where we’d like to place the pressure,” said Park. 

When CUPE locals 917 and 951 first announced job action, they said they aimed for minimal impact on students. But their move to the front of the Bookstore caused some confrontation with students trying to enter the building. As a result, UVic closed the bookstore around 1:30 p.m., after the store had been open for only an hour. 

Finnerty Express, the coffee shop in the same building, was closed the entire day. 

“Right now, we’re trying to separate things that would be inconvenient from things that would actually have a detrimental effect on students, like shutting classes down for instance,” said Park. “But when . . . you have to wait a day to get your books, it really is an inconvenience.” 

Kilpatrick said picketers began physically obstructing students from entering the bookstore and offered what could be called “remarks of passion” to those who did enter.

“It became what campus security described as an ‘extremely intimidating environment,’ ” he said. “Those that did cross the picket line were subject to being yelled at.” 

Park said he had hoped those kinds of situations wouldn’t happen.

“Members were a lot more passionate than we anticipated. We don’t want there to be confrontation . . . that’s not what we’re hoping for,” said Park.

Thomas Ostig was one of the students who approached the bookstore only to have a picketer tell him it was closed due to the strike. 

“I’m slightly annoyed, but it doesn’t affect me. I just really wanted to get a calendar today, but I can’t,” explained Ostig, who said he hasn’t been following the details behind the strike. 

According to CUPE national servicing representative Loree Wilcox, some students joined the picket line. 

Park said, “There is a saying in the labour movement that ‘a strong picket means a short strike.’ When people honour the picket line, they are helping us get the deal done, and there will be no disruptions for anybody.”

Kilpatrick said that, of the 25 colleges and universities in B.C., each associated with one or more CUPE unions, locals 917 and 951 are the only ones that have recently been involved in job action, even though all college and university unions are involved with negotiations with their institutions. 

“What’s happening here is unusual in that respect as well,” he said.

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