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One minute after midnight on January 31, pickets started going up at universities in Victoria, Vancouver, Burnaby and Prince George. Frustrated with the lack of progress at the bargaining table, thousands of university support staff in British Columbia exercised their right to withdraw their services.

By noon that day the strike was over and 7,000 CUPE members had won a memorable victory – ‘big time’.

“The University employers made it very clear that we were not their funding priority,” said CUPE 951 president Doug Sprenger, who chaired the seven-local bargaining committee. “We told them that there would be no settlement without pay equity and benefit improvements for all our locals and our solidarity won the day.”

Pay equity and benefits key issues

For months, bargaining committees from seven locals had been meeting on a regular basis. The coordinated bargaining group represented CUPE 116, 2278 and 2950 from the University of British Columbia; 917 and 951 from the University of Victoria; 3338 from Simon Fraser University; and 3996 from the University of Northern British Columbia.

Between September and January a working group drawn from members of each local had developed the cohesion needed to deal with increasing employer resistance to any kind of coordinated settlement.

Using strategically planned action days starting early in the 1999 autumn semester, they stepped up the pressure on administrators. Regular bulletins, emails and media releases kept committee members, local members and allies informed on a day to day basis. By the time the ’drop dead day’ was set in early January, there was solid support for coordinated action.

Collective resolve

“After two years of preparation, ten days of mediation, and a final 27 hour push through the night, the collective resolve of our CUPE bargaining committee members was incredible,” said Sprenger.
Bargaining together was significant both for CUPE locals and employers. Locals maintained a healthy concern for local autonomy throughout the process. But as time went on, each recognized the benefits of working together on common issues and found it could be done without jeopardizing local autonomy.

Convincing the employers to sit in the same room was a much greater challenge. Until the last week of bargaining, they resisted any attempt to deal collectively with issues of common interest.

The day before ’drop dead day’ CUPE negotiators managed to pull all the employers into one room along with government, employer association and union representatives. By the time the midnight deadline arrived the parties were close but not quite there. Word had been sent out to local networks to set up picket lines.

“Employers didn’t seem to expect CUPE locals to be coordinated to this extent,” said CUPE representative Connie Credico. Even though they had witnessed the escalating round of coordinated actions lasting from an hour to half a day, employers still did not expect this group – many of whom had never been on strike before – to stick together.

But they did. About the time pickets were going up, an employer said to Credico, “Well, we should be able to get this resolved before the deadline.” Credico replied, “We’re at the deadline. The pickets have just gone up.” From that point it took about 12 hours to wrap up bargaining.

Important gains

Members’ defiance paid off. They won pay equity catch up and funding to complete the pay equity process on the four campuses, including members who had previously been denied pay equity. Benefit coverage was extended to all CUPE employees on campus, including teaching assistants who previously received no benefits.
University workers negotiated a single termination date for the 3-year contract and they expect to continue their regular quarterly meetings between now and 2003.

Given the success of round one of coordinated bargaining, you’re likely to see a similar approach next time.

Louise Leclair