Casual workers at the University of Toronto, represented by United Steelworkers local 1998, recently won two paid sick days. Spring Magazine spoke with Colleen Burke (USW 1998 President), and Gabriele Simmons (USW 1998 Casual Unit Organizer and member of the Bargaining Committee) about how they organized to win paid sick days during the pandemic, and how this local union struggle and the broader movement for paid sick days strengthen each other.
Who are the casual workers represented by USW 1998, and what are their working conditions like at one of the country’s wealthiest universities?
Colleen: We represent six units that are either at the University of Toronto or affiliated with it. That’s about 8,500 members total, what we call admin and technical workers. Our members are everybody who doesn’t teach, everything ranging from IT people to communications people to staff in research roles. Our second biggest unit is the casual members. It’s a real range in terms of the work the casual members do, there are more student oriented jobs like in the athletic centers. In the casual unit, it’s anywhere from 3,500 and 4,000 on a monthly basis, that did not have paid sick days.
A third of the bargaining unit is students. And this is one of the reasons why we had such a challenge bargaining with the university, is because their view of student work: “this is a good job for a student, students don’t need real money, students don’t need security.” They willfully misrepresent what the unit’s about, so when we’re in bargaining, they’ll say, “Well, they’re only here for six months.” And it’s like, literally, we have four casuals, here at the table, who’ve been here between five and 20 years, and that’s a little more than six months, right? So that’s been one of the real challenges with the unit is this characterization that it’s just students who are not real people with real bills and real jobs, when, in fact, many of them are. And even students shouldn’t be having to make a choice about, “do I go into work and earn money or do I stay home and be sick.”
Gabriele: We’re an incredibly diverse collection of workers ranging from soccer referees to academic program coordinators to child care assistants, all in short-term contracts. Some of us are full time students, but many of us have worked for the university for years. Either way, it’s not uncommon to see a lot of institutional loyalty, despite the employer proposing we’ve got a lack of institutional attachment due to our precarious work status. Some of our members have had to go into work during the pandemic, often taking transit and opening themselves up to the risk of transmission without the benefit (until this recent agreement) of paid sick days. Others who worked from home may have had to use their personal devices to complete their duties, often without the infrastructure, benefits, or finances to ensure a comfortable work environment. Overall, wages are a fair bit lower in this unit, and many members fill contract after contract without making a living wage.
Why do workers need paid sick days on a permanent basis, and why should employers pay?
Gabriele: Not having paid sick days is hugely costly! Folks going into work unwell, potentially infecting others on their commute and at their work sites. Working ineffectively, running themselves down such that their recovery takes longer and/or they become more susceptible to further illness. Paid sick days help workers become healthier faster and contributes to overall community wellness. Paid sick days should be a permanent provision initiated by government and considered to be common sense.
Colleen: It’s sort of a no brainer, why wouldn’t it be employer paid? To be frank, it benefits the whole workplace, particularly in a pandemic. Do you really want sick people showing up? And now you’ve got an outbreak, and now you’ve got this bigger problem. Matt Edmonds, a former president of our casual unit, in our last round of bargaining, because we were trying to look at paid sick days in that round, and we just had no legs. And he had one of these jobs that he was in all kinds of different classrooms. And he said, “Do you want me coming to work sick? I touch every doorknob in this university. Is it in your interest for me to come in here with a cold and coughing, sneezing and touching doors?” And that was three years before COVID.
What was it like fighting for paid sick days in the middle of the pandemic?
Gabriele: There was a lot of concern around Bill 124 and ensuring we didn’t exceed the 1% cap put in place by Doug Ford. That being said, as the pandemic has dragged on, it’s been impossible for opponents to justify an argument against the value of paid sick days. Our members’ work (and life) contexts are incredibly diverse – some may have consistent hours or shifts every week, while others have more dynamic schedules. Many of our members can’t afford to not go to work when sick and don’t have the type of employment at the university where they can just pick up their hours another time if they’re unwell. Fighting for paid sick days for all in our unit helped to remind our members of the unique contexts their fellow casual members are working in. Members readily got behind this idea, signing a petition in support of paid sick days and readily calling for them at town halls held by the union, sharing personal stories on social media to push back against the employer’s initial stance.
Colleen: I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised in bargaining, that it wasn’t the huge fight I thought it was going to be to get the sick days. And I think that’s because over the last year, there has been just so much societal momentum. You know, whether it’s Decent Work in Health Network, whether it’s Justice for Workers, people have this really increased understanding of essential workers. People who’ve never thought about who bags my groceries, who delivers my Amazon thing, are suddenly now thinking, “oh, this person has to work in a pandemic.” So there’s been that societal change. I think, if we had bargained last year, I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten them. But I think a year of that momentum. It’s a big corporation, right? Do they do the right thing because it’s the right thing? Or do the right do the right thing because it’s good PR. Similarly, back in 2017, when CUPE and Steel got the $15 minimum wage ahead of the legislation. In a way, the university sees where things are going. It’s good PR for them to show leadership on this thing, and it’s certainly good for our members.
What kind of solidarity did you receive, and what impact did this have on members and bargaining?
Gabriele: Outpourings of support from allied workers’ rights organizations, fellow USW locals and our national office, sister labour unions and bodies. People watched and shared our videos, signed our petition, and listened to our songs from our Precarity U campaign. As well, many UofT affiliates signed our open letter that was presented to the employer. Our members and bargaining committee were really enveloped in the wider movement towards workers’ rights that gained traction during the pandemic. This sense of local and global solidarity buoyed our efforts and our feelings of what was possible (thinking big) while at the table.
Colleen: Members were very, very passionate about the paid sick days, those that we were connecting with. Given the complexity of bargaining and COVID, and working at home, we did more through social media than we normally would do. So we had the video, the precarity video that was very good and had a lot of legs. And we did a lot of tweeting, and Facebook and Instagram and connecting with groups like Decent Work and Health Network and Justice for Workers and trying to give an amplification. That was the momentum necessary from the membership base just given the weirdness of the work from home world that we’re in.
The union won a $15 minimum wage in 2017, in the context of the broader movement to raise the minimum wage, and has now won paid sick days as part of this broader campaign. How do local workplace struggles and broader campaigns reinforce each other?
Gabriele: Raising our voices is key to ensuring workers’ rights and shifting the status quo. Broader campaigns do a great job of creating a unifying vision of what we can all strive towards, and do a great job of attracting public attention and support, thus making a stronger case to employers in localized bargaining contexts. There’s also dynamic exchange between local and more broad efforts, and both can encourage new/different gains and priorities in the other.
Colleen: It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. And it was kind of interesting back in 2017, when we got the $15/hr, which was a fairly big jump. We were doing outreach with our members like, “Hey, here’s your contract, here’s the information.” And we heard from more than one person, “well, we’re gonna get that anyway. You didn’t do anything for us, because it’s coming in anyway.” But the government changed and you didn’t get it, which is an important lesson: the government can change anything with a stroke of a pen, and you need it in your contract to guarantee that you can keep it in and it doesn’t get taken away from you.
Several times in the last couple of years, there’s been as paid sick day legislation and it gets struck down. I think it’s important for movements like Justice for Workers and Decent Work and Health to be able to point to, “hey, these guys got paid sick days. Look, it’s doable. Their employer didn’t crumble to dust from the extreme cost of paid sick days, you don’t have people faking illness.” That gives the people struggling for it some momentum and spirit. It’s also something that progressive legislators can look to, and say, “look, these seven employers have done it. And it’s okay. Here are some positive role models we can look at in terms of legislation.” So it definitely all really fits together and reinforces itself. And to be frank, if there hadn’t been all that momentum out there, it would have been 10 times harder for us to bargain.
Doug Ford recently voted down Bill 8, which would have legislated 10 permanent paid sick days and an additional two weeks during public health emergencies, but there is another piece of legislation (Bill 7) that is pending. Why should we support this legislation, and what impact would it have on your members?
Gabriele: Employers (and government) need to take a more holistic view of workers. Paid leave encourages greater wellness and productivity for society as a whole and in the case of this act allows for workers to care for themselves and/or their loved ones and prioritize their wellbeing. Members will no doubt breathe easier knowing they won’t lose much-needed income by taking sick leave, and will feel more supported in the workplace knowing they can take care of themselves when they are unwell.
Colleen: We got two because that was the max we could get under Bill 124. But we’ll be back in bargaining in a year and a half, and that means is we can build on those two days—maybe we can get four, maybe six. We’ve got this little toehold now in the contract that we can keep building on. And if legislation brings in more, that’s just a fabulous bonus for the members. It would be a very good thing, not just in practical terms for our members, it would also be a good thing in terms of our next round of bargaining. Because governments change with the wind. If the government does 10, we would want to bargain at least 10. So if things change, we’ve got that cemented. That’s the idea of unionizing: bargaining something isn’t to protect your piece of the pie, it’s s to bring everybody up with you. So if the unions can raise that bar, and paid sick days are normalized, then hopefully, non-unionized workplaces can follow. You definitely want to see those ripples get out there.
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