Queen’s unions call for renegotiation after Bill 124 decision

Tuesday's rally at Agnes Benidickson Field - Unity Council

Hundreds of Queen’s employees joined a rally on Tuesday calling on their employer to reopen negotiation of collective bargaining agreements that were settled with Bill 124’s raise restriction in place.

Along with an open letter published last week, members of CUPE 229, CUPE 254, CUPE 1302, ONA 067, OPSEU 542, PSAC 901, QUFA, USW 2010, and USW 2010-01 are collectively raising their voices and asking their employer to make fair increases to their pay that were suppressed under Bill 124.

Bill 124, which limited public sector wage increases to 1% yearly, was deemed unconstitutional in December – however the Doug Ford government has launched an appeal against the decision that ran over the last three days.

QUFA, the faculty union who were in the midst of negotiations with the university when the court decision was announced, were able to secure a new deal that saw wage increases of 3%, 3.5% and 3%

Now the remaining unions at Queen’s want to see their wage increases equal that of their faculty counterparts.

In their own open letter attributed to Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) Donna Janiec, and Interim Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Teri Shearer, Queen’s University draws attention to their projected $62.8 million operating deficit for the upcoming school year and says they don’t intend to reopen discussions before the court appeal is finalized.

The university says in light of these factors renegotiation isn’t an imminent plan.

“As noted, when the deficit was announced, the impact of the provincial government’s 10 percent tuition cut for Ontario students in 2019, and subsequent tuition freeze, has cost the university $179.4 million to date,” the letter reads.

“The university has introduced a temporary hiring freeze and is actively considering other mitigation measures to address the operating budget challenges. With this as context, the University has advised our unions that it needs to see the impact of the cost containment and revenue generating measures aimed at controlling the $62.8 million deficit before making a final decision on Bill 124 and wages.”  

QUFA President Jordan Morelli says while the information stated in Queen’s letter is true that the university is choosing to tell “half-truths”.

He says while the deficit amount looks staggering on the surface, when put in context alongside the university’s previous surpluses totalling nearly $600 million it isn’t nearly as onerous.

“They could have deficits like that every year for nine years before they had to worry about running out of money,” Morelli said.

He added that while that amount is currently projected, he’d be shocked if by the end of the next school year it really was that high based on some of their projections.

“If they don’t take in 25 million more than they’re predicting, I would eat my cell phone,” Morelli said.

The QUFA President says the university could get creative with ways to find the necessary room in the budget to fairly pay employees.

Morelli mused about delaying certain renovations and even drawing from the pool set aside for student support, but said that shouldn’t be necessary and even by limiting conference and travel spending to near pandemic levels there would be roughly enough to cover the wage increases employees are fighting for.

He says the budget is all about prioritizing, and that the university’s priorities aren’t in the right place.

“These budgets are choices, they represent the university’s values,” Morelli said.

“What they represent is the university is willing to take advantage of its workers, to take advantage of the fact that the provincial government passed legislation that was unconstitutional that violated every worker’s rights to negotiate a free and fair collective agreement.”

Kelly Orser, President of USW locals 2010 and 2010-01, says even while waiting for a decision on Bill 124 the university could implement measures that would make employees’ lives easier without an actual raise, including free or subsidized parking and gym memberships, but that the university sees that as revenue they don’t want to relinquish.

She says this isn’t the last demonstration that will be seen if Queen’s refuses renegotiation, and that the unions are determined to get what’s fair.

“Members are really frustrated and quite disappointed that the employer won’t reopen negotiations on wages now that Bill 124 has been declared unconstitutional,” Orser said.

“Our members are wanting action quickly… the members are really pulling together this time.”

Orser added that if the university can’t find somewhere to draw the necessary funds, perhaps senior leadership should accept a wage freeze for the next two years – with the 1% increases on their much larger salaries being near enough to cover the raises lower level employees are seeking.

Ultimately, she says, employees are at the end of their rope and are prepared to fight for better.

“I’ve been president now for about 12 years here at this local and I’ve never seen – steelworkers at least- this frustrated,” Orser said.

“They want us to keep pushing and they want us to keep taking action.”

If the Ford government’s appeal of the overturning of Bill 124 fails, the province would owe about $8.4 billion to the public sector over five years.