What is at stake for students and why have negotiations come to a halt?
The union representing support and administrative staff at the University of Ottawa (PSUO-SSUO) has announced its intention to proceed with a strike on Monday at 12:01 a.m. if it cannot reach a tentative settlement on a collective agreement with the University.
The announcement follows the breakdown of a non-binding privately meditated session between both parties that took place on Oct.15.
“The bargaining committees for the University and the union have met with the assistance of a mediator chosen by both parties,” wrote Patrick Charette, the director of institutional communications at the U of O in an email to the Fulcrum. “Despite reaching consensus on many issues, a small number remain outstanding.”
According to the PSUO-SSUO’s press release, talks came to a halt after the union refused the U of O’s latest offer citing it as being “not significantly different to their last offer” from the summer.
In June, the University had imposed a ‘final offer’ vote upon PSUO-SSUO members which was voted down by 80 per cent of the 1,037 members who cast a ballot. The union at the time qualified the final offer vote as “an unnecessary vote put to the membership by our employer, the University of Ottawa.”
Marcelle Desmornes, the president of the District 35 OSSTF/FEESO PSUO-SSUO Bargaining Unit, provided a bleak outlook on the negotiations and the chances of reaching an agreement before the strike comes into effect on Monday morning.
“The members of PSUO-SSUO have stood strong against the employer’s effort to strip health benefits and other provisions, with 80 per cent of the membership rejecting a final offer vote forced by the university in June,” he said. “The bargaining team has no intention of bringing a tentative agreement to the membership that does not respect the contribution they make to this institution.”
What’s at stake for students?
The PSUO-SSUO represents over 1,300 U of O employees that are vital to the operations of the University. Members include lab coordinators, mental health counsellors and specialists, academic counsellors and assistants, financial officers and library technicians
“The big areas where students will feel the pinch (include) finance officers at financial aid and awards who deal with OSAP requests, academic assistants and operations in faculties/departments who handle exam (and) timetable changes, professional certification (law/medicine/accounting), career and CO-OP specialists for placements (plus) library technicians who handle reserves, loans and research databases,” wrote Jonathan Degan, the PSUO-SSUO vice president in an email to the Fulcrum.
“The University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) stands in solidarity with their union partners at the PSUO-SSUO, and we encourage both sides to come to a speedy resolution,” said Tim Gulliver, the UOSU’s advocacy commissioner to the Fulcrum. “One of the groups impacted the most will be undergraduate students. We’re concerned about the impact this will have on students needing services at the Student Academic Success Service (SASS), the library and other academic supports.”
“The PSUO-SSUO represents a hugely important part of our university community and we understand they have not taken this decision lightly.”
Some classes and labs could be cancelled since lab coordinators and other essential workers will be on strike. This will make an already uniquely challenging semester for students even more difficult.
There is no official statement from the union on if disruptions would impact SASS or mental health services on campus; these services could be deemed essential.
The strike will also affect the University of Ottawa’s administration functionality as a number of employees from secretaries to managers are members of the PSUO-SSUO and will be on strike if no tentative agreement is reached before the union’s deadline.
Why have negotiations come to a halt?
The new collective agreement negotiations between the two parties have focused on multiple elements since they started over 19 months ago.
According to the PSUO-SSUO, the U of O is attempting to ‘strip’ its members of their health benefits, reduce parental leave top-ups, lower retirement allowance, reduce the reimbursement for members medication from 100 to 80 per cent and willingly leave 80 support positions vacant.
“The Union has been trying to get the University to address critical employee issues that directly impact the student learning experience such as unfilled vacancies, the hiring of more academic advisors and mental health counsellors, but all have been ignored,” explained Degan.
According to Degan, the University has had three consecutive years of surpluses totalling over $200 million. He highlights that the U of O has an advantage in negotiations due to the Ford government’s Bill 124 that already imposes salary restraints.
He insists that the University is trying to make more savings on the backs of workers who are most vulnerable, all the while in a pandemic.
Harvey Bischof, provincial president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, of which the PSUO-SSUO is a part of, explained the same views in a press release following the breakdown in negotiations on Oct.15.
“In the midst of a pandemic, and in an environment of artificial wage constraint caused by the Ford government’s Bill 124, it’s extremely disappointing that this employer would seek to further erode the conditions under which these valuable workers are employed,” said Bischof.
According to Charette, the U of O has “worked hard with this union for [the] last 19 months to try and achieve a negotiated collective agreement that reflects the important role that our support staff play at the University and in the lives of our students, staff and faculty.”
“The University is hopeful that a strike may be averted.”