University essential workersAline Patcheva | CUPE Communications

Allan James became a Maintenance Technician at the University of Toronto in 2002. Since 2012, he is also president of CUPE 3261 at the University of Toronto. He is no stranger to the service workers he represents across three campuses and hundreds of university buildings. Like him, they are passionate about contributing to the success of the student community by providing quality services in a safe, world-class, learning environment. 

Universities have a long history of providing quality jobs to workers, with higher wages, benefits and pension plans, and a decent work-life balance. CUPE members include many immigrants and racialized people, and the union has negotiated decent collective agreement benefits whose language provides access to higher education at U of T. 

The past 20 months established an increased need for thorough cleaning and disinfection on-campus that experienced staff has carried out diligently. Workers made it a duty to look after everybody’s health and safety extensively and have earned a new level of respect for their work from campus communities, and from the public as well.

“U of T has been cutting good caretaking jobs and contracting out their work to for-profit cleaning companies which pay roughly 30 per cent less in wages and benefits. They claim that they are performing COVID-related cleaning work in over 20 buildings now, but in reality, they are replacing jobs that are being cut indefinitely for penny-pinching savings. What is even worse, private industry is exploiting workers – and particularly racialized workers, who are over-represented in lower-paid and precarious positions. It’s unacceptable that our university supports that, while it says it cares about equity and social justice,” says Allan James, President of CUPE 3261.

What started with outsourcing of construction projects has extended to contracting out all food services and caretaking, building patrol and maintenance. Contracting out is the new norm at U of T and several other universities in Ontario.

CUPE 3261 is fighting the erosion of decent work at U of T. The campaign highlights university service workers as valuable front-line champions looking out for students’ and staff’s wellbeing. Supporters are invited to sign a petition on the local union’s website.

“At the University of Windsor, we see it very clearly that private companies don’t really care about our community. Most of our part-time staff have given over 17 years of service without ever moving into full-time positions, only to see contractors get their jobs. It is inexcusable that such respected institutions are furthering precarious work, low wages, and poverty. We will keep fighting for our members and for decent conditions for all workers in the sector,” said DJ Strand, president of CUPE 1001.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, the Facilities and Asset Management team, which includes facilities, custodial and grounds staff, were deemed an essential service. Their focus has been the safe return to class. The university’s administration did not hesitate to highlight the incredible work CUPE members are doing, as they have persistently kept on-campus activities operational, clean, and safe. 

“We are committed to give people the means to stay safe and we are glad that management at Wilfrid Laurier is on our side. CUPE 926 won the President’s award for team achievement this year, as we housed doctors and nurses in one of our residences, at the beginning of the pandemic, doing our best to help them. Working together with management has helped us regain buildings that had contract cleaners, and as a result, the university is now hiring more service workers,” says Jody MacDonald, vice-president of CUPE 926.