Two university unions begin strike action

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Two unions representing UVic employees served strike notices to the university on Aug. 31 after almost two years of negotiations. Employees among these groups include library assistants, ground workers, security officers and others.

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 951 and 917, which represent approximately 1350 workers at UVic, have been in negotiations with UVic since fall 2010 after their previous contracts expired in March of that year. The groups brought in mediator Mark Atkinson this January to help close the gap between the university and the unions.

But after extensive negotiations throughout June, when the university made a formal offer of wage increases of 2.0 per cent in 2012 and 1.5 per cent in 2013, the unions declined to make a counter-proposal.

“We still haven’t received a response to [the offer] as of yet,” says Bruce Kilpatrick, UVic’s director of Communications.  “The offer was tabled in late June, and the only thing the union did after having received that offer was to serve the university with strike notice.”

Under 2001 legislation brought in by the Liberal government, before any job action such as a strike can legally take place at an academic institution, the B.C. Labour Relations Board must designate which services and facilities are necessary “to prevent immediate and serious disruption of educational programs.”

On Aug. 31, the Board made its decision and outlined the positions that must remain active even in the event of a strike.  The list includes security personnel, computing facilities and payroll, but not food services for some 1 800 undergraduates in on-campus residences. Cleaning services may also be reduced significantly.

The unions gave 72-hour strike notice on Aug. 31. They have stated that it is not their intention to disrupt students’ lives. Instead, the types of job action that will take place include refusing overtime work and picketing administrative buildings.

“We’re not looking to disrupt students in any way,” says Doug Sprenger, president of CUPE Local 951.  “Only in the eventuality that the university does not come back to the bargaining table to negotiate a fair and reasonable agreement would we have to consider broader action that would have a greater impact on students.”

Sprenger blames the provincial government’s deliberate “starving” of post-secondary funding as the main reason behind the failed negotiations. He says the government’s plan to privatize parts of the university sector, which was revealed in government documents that surfaced last month, is putting the members of his union at risk.

According to the government document posted on CUPE 951’s website, the provincial government is looking to fast-track its “Administrative Service Delivery Transformation Project” — a program that would see post-secondary institutions share back-office and administrative duties.  Although the government says it has not made any final decisions yet, Sprenger says the proposed program is making many positions unnecessary, threatening job loss for members of his and other unions.

“Our main issues during the negotiations have been improved job security, classification of union jobs and keeping up with inflation, with job security being the most important” says Sprenger.  “When the university came to the table in June with the wage increases, we said, ‘You can offer us whatever you want, but let’s talk about job security first,’ and they didn’t.”

The university disagrees with the assertions made by Sprenger and states that there is already strong job security language in the collective agreement and that it has no intention of tabling anything that would erode those strong measures.  

Kilpatrick does, however, agree with Sprenger’s assertions that a lack of funding due to the B.C. government’s co-operative gains mandate has made this round of collective bargaining more difficult than it should be.

“The mandate says to all the organizations in the public sector that if you’re going to put wage and benefit increases on the table, you’re going to have to find a way to pay for that yourself through savings, because it’s very clear that the provincial government will not be providing additional funding for any wage increases,” says Kilpatrick.

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