Queen’s unions call for wage increases after Bill 124 struck down

Workers from eight different unions across Queen’s University attend a rally on June 20, 2023. Photo by Dylan Chenier/Kingstonist.

Workers from eight different unions across Queen’s University are hoping the institution will re-open contract talks for agreements they say were negotiated under the unconstitutional rule of Bill 124, or Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019. The Ontario government introduced the controversial legislation in 2019, which capped public sector wage increases in the province at one per cent each year for three years. Last November, the Ontario Superior Court ruled the bill unconstitutional. Now, unions are hoping to renegotiate agreements that were established when the bill was law. 

At Queen’s University, the Unity Council, which represents eight unions, including 3,300 staff and faculty members, is hoping the school will provide its members with a fair wage increase. Members of the unions held a public rally on Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2023, reiterating their calls for fair contracts with wage increases beyond the initial one percent offered through Bill 124. 

“This is how we change things: as one voice, not just a handful of complainers everywhere,” said Jesse Bambrick, president of CUPE 229, which represents maintenance, cleaning, parking, grounds, and food service employees at the university. “This is a serious issue; inflation’s gotten out of control. The government screwed us too, but we need help from Queen’s now. They’ve got lots of pockets of money they need to reallocate. They need to put us first because we put our services first.”

Following his public remarks, Bambrick spoke directly with Kingstonist and explained the financial difficulties his union and others have faced in recent years, which have been compounded by the constraints of Bill 124. “The one per cent [cap] in Bill 124 has plagued the whole university with hard times. We have people [who] have lived in their cars. We have people who are using food banks 40 to 50 per cent of the time. [The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC)] has 52 per cent of their membership using the food bank on a regular basis just to survive,” he claimed. 

“Bill 124… has really devastated the lower-tier caretakers, custodial staff, tradespeople… Everybody has been affected by this one per cent [cap], except for the higher-ups,” added Bambrick. CUPE 229 and the other seven Unity Council unions are hoping to secure the same increases earned by members of the school’s Faculty Association during their latest contract talks, which took place earlier this year. 

This past February, members of the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) were able to negotiate wage increases of 3.5 per cent, 3.0 per cent, and 3.0 per cent over the next three years, following an intense and divisive eight-month bargaining period with the university. QUFA’s collective agreement was finalized after Bill 124 was struck down, allowing members to secure wage increases of more than one per cent per year. 

CUPE 229 President Jesse Bambrick addresses the crowd during Tuesday’s rally at Queen’s University. Photo by Dylan Chenier.

According to Bambrick, approximately nine other collective agreements were negotiated under Bill 124, with members forced to accept increases of just one per cent a year at a time when high inflation rates have caused a cost of living crisis for many middle- and low-income wage earners. Bambrick and his fellow union presidents are hoping the university will renegotiate the contracts now that Bill 124 has been ruled unconstitutional. 

“That’s what this rally is for today: for all of us to get 2.5 per cent for last year, two per cent for this year, on top of the one per cent they already gave us,” Bambrick said. “[We need] equity between the unions on campus. QUFA represents the highest-paid unionized body; if [Queen’s] can afford to give them the 3.5 per cent, 3.0 per cent, and 3.0 per cent, it’s a drop in the bucket to give it to the rest of us,” he added. 

With Queen’s University operating under a $62.8 million deficit this fiscal year, the unions have alleged that the institution has money elsewhere in its budget to cover the costs of additional wage increases. “The money’s there; they just need to move it into the right positions. It’s not against any rules. They just need to put us first instead of covering their butts on the budget and stuff like that, and hiding behind Bill 124 and the Ford government,” Bambrick claimed. 

Kelly Orser, president of United Steel Workers (USW) 2010, which represents various support staff at the university, said the unions’ demands are an attempt to “level the playing field.” She said, “We’re not demanding a lot from Queen’s. We’re not asking for 10 per cent; we’re not asking for eight per cent. What we’re asking for is wage parity with faculty. It’s not a great wage — 3.5 per cent, 3.0 per cent, and 3.0 per cent — with inflation right now, but it helps [to] at least level the playing field with all the workers on campus.”

Prior to Tuesday’s rally, members of the Unity Council sent a letter to the university’s Deputy Provost, outlining the request to renegotiate collective agreements that were bargained under Bill 124. In response to the open letter, Donna Janiec, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration), and Teri Shearer, Interim Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), confirmed that the university will wait to see how the government’s recent appeal of the Superior Court ruling plays out. 

On Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2023, a three-day hearing officially got underway at the Ontario Court of Appeals, with the province’s highest court set to decide whether or not to uphold the lower court’s declaration on Bill 124. “There is enormous complexity associated with Bill 124 and our negotiated wages,” Janiec and Shearer wrote in an email to presidents of Unity Council unions. “By way of example, if the declaration of constitutional invalidity is upheld on appeal, there will be a remedy phase where monetary damages may be ordered to the unions.”

“We are not aware of any other university in Ontario that is contemplating opening their collective agreements unless [those agreements] have wage opener language,” the two administrators added in their response. 

Aside from the $62.8 million deficit the university has cited as a contributing factor to its budget “complexities,” Janiec and Shearer also claimed recent tuition cuts and freezes from the provincial government have further constrained the institution’s ability to increase wages. “The university’s use of its reserves has helped to mitigate the worst impacts of the tuition cut; however, our ongoing reliance on the university’s reserves is not sustainable. The university has introduced a temporary hiring freeze and is actively considering other mitigation measures to address the operating budget challenges,” they wrote. 

Although the administration appears unwilling to re-open the contracts during the current round of appeal hearings, members of the Unity Council are not backing down from their calls for equitable wage increases.

“We are hoping that Queen’s hears us loud and clear,” Bambrick said. “This was a huge turnout [today]. We have all unions working together on campus for the first time in a long time. I’m just hoping that over the next couple of days of hearings with the provincial government, it leads to conversations and a sit-down with senior management and trustees. We need to fix this now. People are missing mortgage payments [and] struggling to fill up their cars to get to work in the morning…  Everyone has suffered a lot more than a one per cent loss over the last two years.” 

Kingstonist reached out to Queen’s University for comment on this matter. No response was received by time of publication. This article will be updated if/when more information becomes available.

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