Hundreds of workers declare unified front ahead of negotiations at Queen’s

Unions representing 5,000 workers at Queen’s University came out swinging today in what they anticipate will be a fight for their jobs, wages and dignity.

At a public lunchtime assembly at the Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2024, leaders of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and United Steelworkers (USW) addressed over 400 of their members, signalling their intentions to work as a united front in the upcoming round of bargaining with the university. 

Jake Morrow, bargaining committee member and recently elected incoming president of  PSAC Local 901 (Graduate Student Workers) leads the announcement that Queen’s unionized workers will stand together.

The event was organized by Unity Council, a group “comprised of the Presidents/delegates from all unionized groups at Queen’s,” according to its website. Posters around campus invited all unionized and non-unionized workers on campus to this “Joint Members Assembly.”

Jake Morrow, bargaining committee member and recently elected incoming president of PSAC Local 901 (Graduate Student Workers), addressed the crowd, saying forcefully, “We stand together to declare that, as workers and Kingston community members, we cannot and will not be the ones to finance this administration’s manufactured deficit.”

Morrow echoed an email sent to union members yesterday questioning the timing of the university’s claims of a budget crisis. That the budget woes appeared just as most unionized workers on campus are about to enter bargaining “is not lost on us,” the email said.

“This year, Queen’s claims to be facing a budget crisis. This crisis suddenly appeared when Queen’s is either currently bargaining or preparing to bargain with nearly every unionized worker on campus?” Morrow asked facetiously.

“Bullshit!” one of the 400 or so workers in the room shouted, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Morrow pointed out that like many in Kingston and across Ontario, “we all recently had our wages illegally suppressed under Bill 124. That these are the first contracts for all of us to be negotiated following that unconstitutional law’s repeal is also not lost on us.”

“Shame,” workers shouted in response.

This “crisis,” whether real or manufactured, Morrow said, threatens to cause immediate and long-lasting economic damage, “not only to our members and their families, but to the broader Kingston community — our community — by way of layoffs, hiring freezes, non-renewals, and loss of real-wages in a continuing, and very real, cost of living crisis.” 

Morrow continued, “A budget is not set in stone; it is a projection. It is a reflection of an organization’s values, how and where it chooses to spend its money. Queen’s is choosing to value maintaining its hundreds of millions of dollars in available investment capital and savings over preserving its academic mission, over its employees’ livelihoods. We will not let that happen.”

Hundreds of the 5,000 workers in Queen’s unions showed up to hear the news and declare a united front ahead of negotiations.

According to a release by Unity Council, Queen’s University is the largest employer in Kingston. “United, the members of the unions represent almost 5,000 workers in this community. We will not let Queen’s address its deficit crisis on our backs: an injury to our members is an injury to the entire Kingston community,” it reads.

Another email to workers said, “We, the workers of Queen’s University and Aramark [food services], are united in our desire to build and maintain a world-class public university. Queen’s short-sighted budgeting decisions — including a hiring freeze and cuts to core programs and courses — jeopardize that goal.”

“To adequately support Queen’s mission,” read the missive, “we need proper staffing, and we need our workers, representing thousands of members of the Kingston community, to be paid enough to live comfortably and with dignity. Queen’s workers are united. We will fight for what is right for Queen’s workers and students. We will fight for what is right for Kingston.”

Steve Senechal, President of CUPE Local 229 (Custodial/Maintenance Workers), introduced his workers as “the people who clean and maintain the university and the grounds,” to cheers from the crowd. He emphasized the need for a full staff complement to keep the world-class university functioning at its best, but noted that “even before the wage freeze, we were having problems attracting and maintaining people to do our jobs because of stagnant wages over the past ten years.”

He also lamented the hiring-out of union work to contractors who are paid “twice as much” by Queen’s at “every opportunity.” 

Members of CUPE Local 229 (Custodial/Maintenance Workers) cheer as their leader introduces them as the people who maintain the world-class institution.

He shared that members need “significant wage increases and ending contracting out of our work. We need a commitment to hire staff to keep Queen’s buildings the best in the city. Together we are stronger, and we can build a better future for ourselves, the students, and Queen’s — because at the end of the day, all of us make Queen’s what it is.”

Along with several other leaders, Justyna Szewczyk El Jassem, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the history department and President of PSAC 901, spoke on behalf of the more than two thousand teaching assistants, research assistants, and teaching fellows she represents at the university.

Justyna Szewczyk El Jassem, President of PSAC 901, spoke on behalf of the more than 2,000 teaching assistants, research assistants, and teaching fellows she represents at the university, many of whom are suffering food insecurity due to low wages and high fees.

“We are all graduate workers who get paid small amounts of money to assist in teaching and research… Without us, no exams, no research, and no labs can take place at this University,” Jassem remarked, adding, “On top of that, we pay to have the privilege of working here. We pay tuition and rent because Queen’s is also landlord to some of us.”

“We pay so much that graduate workers suffer severe food insecurity and a cost-of-living crisis: PSAC 901’s Emergency Food Support Program received 1800 applications in 11 months.” she shared.

Cries of “Shame!” rang out among the crowd.

“The number of applications [for food support] nearly matches the number of our members,” Jassem went on. “If this wasn’t enough while we struggle to feed ourselves, Queen’s, our landlord, plans an illegal 35 per cent rent increase over three years,” she pointed out, to more shouts of outrage.

“So Queen’s,” she challenged, “please increase our funding and increase our wages by 35 per cent first.”

“As the majority of our members prepare to enter bargaining,” reads the Unity Council release, “we stand together to declare that as workers and community members, we cannot and will not be the ones to finance this administration’s ambition to operate our public university and community institution like a corporate, for-profit entity.”

One union leader ominously observed that, without the gathered workers, Queen’s could not operate — “and we will not hesitate to shut her down.”

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