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CUPE members working on Ontario university campuses are heading into a new school year with a new outlook — they know they have the strength of 20,000 sisters and brothers behind them as they negotiate their new collective agreements.

We believe in the power of solidarity,” says Janice Folk-Dawson, chair of the Ontario university workers coordinating committee. “Our sector is advancing, moving from informal, cooperative-style bargaining to a full-scale coordinated bargaining campaign.”

In early June, five locals representing academic workers filed notice to bargain on the same day. Yesterday, August 31, CUPE 3906 at McMaster University and CUPE 4600 at Carleton went one step further and filed for conciliation. CUPE 3261, representing support staff at the University of Toronto, and CUPE 2484, U of T child care workers, had already taken that step.

The other academic locals participating in the 2006 coordinated bargaining campaign include Local 233, Ryerson University; Local 3902, University of Toronto, and Local 3907, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), U of T. Also at the table this year are Local 3905, Lakehead University, and Locals 229, 254 and 1302, Queen’s University. Local 793, University of Waterloo, and Local 2692, University of Western Ontario have settled.

Protection against tuition fee increases is a key issue for all academic locals. The McGuinty government has lifted the freeze on tuition fees effective this year. The Liberals are allowing universities to increase fees anywhere from 20% to 36% over the next four years.

Besides teaching and research assistants, CUPE also represents contract instructors, whose key issues are job security and wages. Years of provincial underfunding have produced more contract work and fewer tenured positions.

We cannot continue to bargain as if our employers are independent of the provincial government when so many provincial decisions — like lifting the freeze on tuition fees — affect us in the workplace,” says Folk-Dawson. “Members will be going to the table looking for language to protect our incomes from erosion due to tuition increases, protection from the increasing encroachment of the private sector into universities through contracting out and other security measures for both academic and support staff units.”

For Jessica Squires, president of CUPE 4600 at Carleton University, the strategy will pay off in both the short term and long term.

I really do think we can achieve more for our members,” says Squires, who is a teaching assistant working on her PhD in history. It’s really about levelling the playing field with employers, she says.

The universities are coordinated. They communicate with each other, they belong to a provincial organization and they put pressure on each other. That puts us at a disadvantage if we don’t have the information they have at the bargaining table.”

That coordination by employers illustrates clearly that CUPE members, even though they work for different institutions, are up against the same thinking. Coordinated bargaining strengthens the bonds among them, especially between the academic and support worker locals that often exist in two solitudes on the same campus, Squires says.

In the longer term, she believes both sides of the bargaining table could benefit from a move to central bargaining, just like hospitals workers have.

Joint bargaining at a central table really clarifies the issues,” she says. “Workers know where their employers are and the employers can get together to pressure the government on funding. Everyone wins.”

Over the next month, as students — and workers — go through orientations, they’ll see a CUPE flyer welcoming them back for another year.

Plans are already in the works for a day of action later this fall that could include information pickets and other activities. At the same time, tuition proposals at the bargaining table will be reinforced with a coordinated campaign against tuition fee increases in conjunction with the Canadian Federation of Students. Tuition protection in our contracts is only the first step. Workers and their families need accessible postsecondary education — and, in the long run, that means the end of tuition fees altogether.