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Ongoing tension between CUPE members and the USW puts pay equity project at risk

By Shannon Clarke

When United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1998’s pay equity team decided to unionize this time last year, it was out of principle, says Sheetal Rawal. And as far as jobs went, theirs were good. “It was a dream job; it was pay equity work,” she said.[1]

But by December, five months after joining CUPE 1281, six of the nine-member team were out of a job.Beauty Shots for Economic Development

The staff – hired by the Steelworkers to aid with job evaluations– believes they lost their jobs because they decided to unionize. Local 1998, which represents more than 5000 administrative and support staff at the University of Toronto, rejects this claim and says instead that the dismissals were a result of lack of work.

Rawal and her colleagues were part of a project assessing jobs at the University of Toronto’s St. George, UTSC and UTM campuses to ensure fair compensation. The team was responsible for assisting members with job evaluation questionnaires, as well as negotiating with the university and answering questions regarding issues like retroactive pay.

“My favourite part of the job was working with members on all aspects of the [job evaluation] process,” said Gail Posen, one of the six members let go in December. Now retired, Posen joined the team in 2011, bringing with her years of experience from the Toronto Board of Education. She said the feedback was positive and still hears from appreciative members.

In her reflection piece published with last month, Rawal clarified that her position differed from the precarious work situations confronting a growing number of workers across the country. “We were paid well, the market value for our work. We had benefits. We had vacation pay and sick days. And, for this, I was grateful,” she wrote.

The uncertainty was a result of not being guaranteed permanent employment, not a lack of necessary pay equity research. The Local passed periodic funding motions for their positions and until last year, they passed easily. “There was never any shortage of work,” said Posen, who was temporarily let go last summer and brought back few weeks later.

“We were really humming along, especially in the last six months of 2014 when we were engaging members in more effective ways than ever before…and there were all kinds of indicators that it was working,” she added.

Representatives from Local 1998 insist that those jobs were always meant to be temporary. “Previously, Local 1998 had relied almost entirely on members to do job evaluation, a model that it had always intended to return to,” representatives wrote in an email. “To be clear, all CUPE 1281 members whose term contracts ended by December 31, 2014 were well aware of that end date when they had accepted these term contracts.”

Rawal began working with the Local in 2013, brought on through an acquaintance from law school. She said she filled out a form with basic employee information but there was no official discussion on benefits, vacation or pay nor an explicit probationary period or clear expectations about hours.

Andrea Tirone, another former pay equity employee, had a similar experience. She was also recruited and joined the team in 2013. “The sense that I got was that as long as you’re doing this work and you enjoy it, there’s a place for you here,” she said. Unionizing was a way to turn verbal agreements into formal, written contracts that could be negotiated through collective bargaining.

Local 1998 did not respond to requests for further information regarding employment contracts.

The decision to join CUPE 1281 (which represents many workplaces dedicated to social justice across Canada) started with a series of emails and conversations between team members last spring. Despite the good pay and amiable work conditions, unionizing could help ensure job security, a grievance process and consistency from the Local when and if employees were let go.

“That was our sentiment, that this group we’re working for now is great but who knows who’s coming in,” said Tirone. “Why not try and organize so that we have some sense of stability?”

For it’s part, Local 1998 maintain that the Executive members knew about the process and were encouraging. “No ‘anti-union’ actions were taken against the local staff as a result of their efforts to unionize,” they wrote.

This, too, is a source of debate. Though the former Local employees say they weren’t actively discouraged from unionizing, there was a noticeable workplace change when they turned to collective representation. By the time their terms ended in December, the newly minted CUPE members were unemployed and no collective agreement had been reached.

The Ministry of Labour has since appointed a conciliator to facilitate collective bargaining. If there is still no agreement by July, their certification can be challenged by either the former employers or current members.

Because of these obstacles, the former Pay Equity staff are still concerned that the work project they commenced might go unfinished. With the loss of two thirds of the staff, they said, goes valuable experience and knowledge about the work.

“The greatest loss is that the members won’t have their jobs evaluated,” said Tirone.[2]


[1] The author and Rawal Sheetal were acquainted before work on this article commenced.
[2] While jobs are still being evaluated, there is uncertainty regarding how long the process will take.

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