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Union negotiates health and dental benefits, better wages

Photo by Sofia Hashi

The union of student workers at the University of Ottawa has passed a strike mandate and could potentially walk off the job during exams in April.

Members of CUPE 2626 convened March 12 in Tabaret Hall for their annual general meeting and passed a strike mandate with 97 per cent in favour.

Matters of health and dental benefits, better wages — in order to reflect tuition fee increases — and maternity leave are contested areas of negotiation.

Both sides will go into conciliation, after which the union can submit a no-board request if an agreement isn’t met. The union would legally be able to strike 17 days later.

The timeline poses a threat to the university’s exam session, as the teaching and research assistants could potentially strike during exams and make it difficult to complete the term.

Isabelle Hétu, president of CUPE 2626, accused the U of O labour relations department of being “ridiculous” and “insulting” during negotiations, which have lasted more than six months. The union’s collective agreement expired Aug. 31, 2013 and negotiations for a new contract have fallen through.

“We’ve been asking to get financial data on our salary mass for six months now and they finally gave us one document,” said Hétu. “It’s time-stamped Feb. 14 and they gave it to us on Monday morning, (March 10).”

Sean Kelly, the union’s coordinator, said the union issued a bargaining notice in June 2013, but the university didn’t reply until late August.

“They have made it very clear we’re not a priority for them,” he said. “They’ve been cancelling dates. It demonstrates a lack of respect for our members who make up fundamental parts in how our university works.”

Hétu added the university has been “cancelling meeting after meeting and delaying everything when it’s (their) full-time job to do that.”

The union is concerned about the rising cost of tuition compared to stagnant wages for student workers. Teaching assistants have to be students to get the job, but they must pay tuition as well. The average graduate TA earns about $5,000 for a full-time contract, but it costs about $8,000 to enrol in a master’s program at the U of O.

“If we were to get a similar increase of tuition, say three per cent, that would still mean our members get a three per cent increase in salary,” Kelly said. “Our members are at a net loss.”

He added the union’s conference and financial aid funds are dry and they’re two-thirds through the year.

“Because the contract is expired, we’re dealing with money that is allocated on the basis of the old system. It’s done. That money is almost entirely done,” he said.

Patrick Charette, director of corporate communications at the U of O, said in an email to the Fulcrum that the administration is “disappointed to see that CUPE members have strongly voted in support of a strike.”

“Bargaining is still ongoing,” he said. “The university hopes that through this process we will reach an agreement.”

Hétu said student workers don’t want to strike, but it may be the only option.

“We won’t go below the cost of living and the tuition fee increase, which (the university) is not happy about,” she said.

Kelly said he hopes the strike mandate will “light a fire under the university so that they (can) get their information together and present it coherently and credibly.”

The university did not say what measures would be put in place if a strike did occur during exams.

The union and the university have scheduled their next meetings for March 20 and 27.