The focus of my speech is on organizing in the University sector, specifically addressing our collective strengths, our collective weaknesses and how to take advantage of missed opportunities. Organizing the unorganized is of course key. What I call “Re-Organizing the organized” is another important element that is overlooked. And I will touch on both of these issues in this speech. There is much work to be done but CUPE has taken positive, concrete steps toward organizing in the University Sector. Specifically, I am referring to The Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee’s Organizing Proposal that was endorsed by CUPE. In the introduction of the proposal, the OUWCC calls this plan “ambitious, aggressive and achievable” and I completely agree. It is a step in the right direction for CUPE.
CUPE is the largest union in Canada. Due to this, what CUPE does has a major impact upon the rest of the labour movement. We therefore also have a responsibility to our members. We have a responsibility to those who want to become CUPE members. We have a responsibility to be leaders in organizing.
The OUWCC Organizing Plan focuses on the unorganized food service workers at four universities: Waterloo, Guelph, Western & Carleton. The food service industry is notorious for bad working conditions.
Who is working in the food service industry? Primarily, women, workers of colour, new Canadians and youth.
Who are they working for? There are 3 major food service providers. And by major I mean global. Namely in order of global market domination: Aramark, Sodexho and Compass.
How lucrative is this business? Very. Sodexho in the US and Canada made $4.9 billion in annual sales alone.
Organizing in the food service industry is therefore a social justice issue.
What can we do?
The OUWCC Organizing Plan recognizes that CUPE locals often do not have the resources or people to dedicate to organizing, never mind aggressive organizing. We need to train member organizers and provide them with the support of organizing coordinators to plan and execute union campaigns. While coordinators may know the strategies to get this done, members on the ground have the interpersonal relationships with the unorganized workers and they know the history and dynamics of the university as an employer. This type of knowledge and experience should NEVER be undervalued and is key to success.
Kate Bronfenbrenner argues in the book “Organizing to Win” that the majority of research has been done on the employer’s anti-union tactics. And anti-union tactics will always exist. However, what has not been such an area of interest is a focus on what unions can do to increase their levels of success in organizing. We are not passive to the whims of management, to the government, to transnational corporations or globalization, we are active participants and the fight is on.
There is a huge potential in organizing food service provider workers. Aramark, Sodexho and Compass are not household names. But Pizza Pizza, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks are. Due to franchise agreements, food service providers are able to operate these Brand Name businesses and the consumer is unaware of the difference. It is not too hard to imagine that if a Starbucks gets organized and those workers obtain the union advantage, that other Starbucks workers will question why they are left out? This is an opportunity for CUPE to have a huge impact on the private sector and perhaps an opportunity for organizing coalitions with other unions. Likewise, Aramark, Sodexho and Compass are also in hospitals, nursing homes, elementary and high schools and government buildings which are other sectors that CUPE is strong in. Organizing aggressively in the University Sector will provide us with opportunities to organize in our other sectors.
We also need to rethink site by site defined bargaining unit descriptions. Organizing for a geographical scope where all the employees of a company in a city for example are unionized, would provide workers with more bargaining power and is more feasible then attempting to organize typically small food service workplaces one by one.
The possibilities are endless but only if we put adequate resources into organizing and take advantage of these short-lived opportunities.
Let us imagine that we do take advantage of these opportunities and launch an aggressive organizing program and are able to achieve 100% union density in the food service industry of the university sector, we may still not be at our strongest if we don’t use our union density to our advantage.
This leads me to the second theme of my speech, re-organizing the organized.
I have heard different figures but I believe that CUPE represents about 50% of the Sodexho workers in Canada. Imagine the bargaining power these workers would have if CUPE moved to a master contract model with core language and a common expiry date? We know that there is strength in numbers but we negotiate & represent in ways that undermine our collective strength.
In fact, CUPE maybe the only union who could possibly take on the big 3, Aramark, Sodexho and Compass because of our union density. The key barrier to organizing contracted out services is that when the contractor changes, there are no successor rights and therefore no union. No union despite the fact the workers are the same. No union despite the fact that the only real difference is often the logo. The big 3 food service providers are in a race to the bottom in order to quote the lowest possible price to possible clients. This undercutting then leads to even worse working conditions.
However, if CUPE is able to steadily organize workers from Aramark, Sodexho and Compass, the impact would be that all three companies would be forced to pay fair wages, benefits, etc. and the norm, the competitive rate would be somewhat equalized but overall much higher.
Furthermore, we can also use our size to pressure the big 3 for card check neutrality where the employer agrees that once a certain percentage of workers have signed union cards, a union is recognized instead of requiring a vote. (This of course is already a reality for Quebec).
Let me now step away from the food service workers to the academic workers. Namely, Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants. Several university locals including CUPE 3906 where I am a member at McMaster University, have taken their first steps toward coordinated bargaining by filing for conciliation on the same date and attempting to achieve a common expiry date. We know that the university administration get together and coordinate their plans against us. It was time we got smart and did the same.
As a side note, as one of two Strike Coordinators I need to let you know that CUPE 3906’s contract expired in August and the Employer signalled their intent to file a No Board Report on the first day of Conciliation. This then triggered a 17-day countdown until McMaster University could lock us out and/or the union could go out on strike. The Strike Mandate Vote began this past Wednesday and ends tonight at seven. CUPE 3906 will be calling upon all locals for your support if we are locked out or do go on strike on Oct. 23rd.
In conclusion then, I hope I have illustrated that CUPE is in a unique situation in terms of its capacity to organize food service workers in the University Sector, which can have positive far-reaching effects for workers in other CUPE sectors like healthcare and even in the private sector with great possibilities for union coalitions to be built. Moving toward master contracts and coordinated bargaining are two ways that we can increase our worker power which can then allow us to pressure employers for more favourable organizing environment. Therefore, organizing the unorganized and re-organizing the organized are interlinked and CUPE again as the largest union in Canada has the unique opportunity and responsibility to, and here I quote again from the OUWCC, move this “ambitious, aggressive and achievable” plan forward.
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