State of the unions: What CUPE 4163’s fight teaches us

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Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there’s a union, there’s an answer.

The status of employment on campus may not be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, but the reality is that a great many students, especially at the graduate level, depend on the university for their current livelihood as well as the safeguard for their futures. That livelihood was recently threatened for one group of campus employees, reminding us all of the value of unionized labour when it comes to representing worker’s rights.

Components 1 & 2 of CUPE 4163 are currently preparing a ratification vote on a collective agreement between themselves and UVic. Should the agreement be ratified, it will put to bed a near two-year David/Goliath matchup between an assortment of short-term assistant positions and the university administration.

It all began in 2014, when the collective bargaining agreement mandating the terms of employment for teaching assistants, academic assistants, lab instructors, residence leaders, language instructors, and cultural assistants expired and a new one needed drafting in compliance with the terms of B.C.’s economic stability mandate.

This economic stability mandate legislates collective agreements with public employees in B.C., and reflects, ironically enough, the recent instability in the provincial economy. Provisions were meant to stimulate growth while lessening productive risks: the accommodation of wage increases to accompany GDP increases as well as greater power to negotiate long-term agreements.

CUPE 4163’s component 3—the union section mandating higher paid, better educated sessional and musical instructors—was able to come to terms with a relative lack of fuss or muss. But  components 1 & 2—largely made up of post-graduate students in short-term, part time positions—had to demonstrate their willingness to strike to get the university to come to the table.

A strike action is never a light undertaking; it’s a desperate last stand. Strikes mean wage losses, productivity losses, and a great deal of unpleasantness from and for both sides. Had an action occurred prior to the end of term, the university might have ground to a halt if all union employees and those of a like-minded conscious opted to utilise their right to support rather than cross the picket line.

What problem called such measures into consideration? While not being privy to confidential agreements within either the union or the university bargaining committees, one problem publicized on CUPE 4163’s website was a demand from the university to extend the agreement’s expiry date from four years — as in the case of the 2010 agreement — to 10.

What does that mean? Well, a few things. Not only does it exploit B.C. labour codes, which recommend but fail to mandate that collective agreements be capped at a five-year term, it would force conditions for workers to remain static for a solid decade, come hell or high water. That doesn’t just muzzle workers; it puts words into the mouths of minors whose future working conditions would’ve been predetermined while they’re still finishing high school.

Understandably, bargaining representatives from CUPE 4163 were less than impressed. Talks stalled, with the university refusing to come to the table. On Feb. 16–19, components 1 & 2 brought a vote forward to agree to strike if an agreement could not be reached. That vote overwhelmingly passed. Shortly after being made public, talks resumed, and now a tentative agreement looks promisingly set to tuck this conflict away: a memorandum of agreement was signed March 19, and awaits a cursory ratification vote.

While the new agreement hasn’t been made public, as it is pending a vote of acceptance from components 1 & 2, the recent turnaround after two years of stalling shows that unionized labour can still pull its weight to protect workers on campus. Nonetheless, it took the threat of an all out strike to get UVic to play ball with a unionized workforce on campus: the union may have had the answer this time around, but if these are the stakes workers are driven to play for, maybe it’s time for UVic to think more carefully about its demands.  

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