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UBC's unions challenge net-zero mandate while managers get raises

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In a province already embroiled in an acrimonious battle with its teachers union, The University of British Columbia is facing strike votes from two of its three collective bargaining units, with the third feeling more and more marginalized by the BC government and its employers. Meanwhile, the highest paid employees at the University have been allotted wage increases, merit pay and performance bonuses totalling $9-million.

UBC's Union of trades and technical workers on campus, CUPE 116, voted 89 per cent in favour of a strike last Thursday, March 15. The Teaching Assistants Union, CUPE 2278, will vote for job action on March 22. UBC Support Staff, CUPE 2950, have not ruled out a strike vote and are awaiting a proposal in April, which UBC President Stephen Toope has assured them will include wage increases.

One of Canada's richest English-speaking universities is citing the province's notorious "net-zero" mandate as justification for not entertaining raises or cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) in the three contract negotiations which began in 2010. As evidenced by the embittered labour dispute between the province and the British Columbia Teachers Federation, free collective bargaining has been off the table since the BC Liberals came to power in 2001. Wage increases to UBCs unionized public workers remained unapproachable for the first year and a half of bargaining talks.

That changed in January of this year when the three locals discovered that employees of the university who made in excess of $75 000 received, on average, wage increases of 4 per cent for a total of $9-million; or half of the entire wage bill of the T.A. Union. "Management, Administration and Faculty at UBC all have mechanisms within their collective agreements or contracts that not only allow, but often mandate, that the university review their wage structures," says CUPE Local 2950 President Nancy Forhan. "Things like 'merit' and 'performance' bonuses are a thinly veiled way of giving wage increases within the zero mandate ."

UBC also reported a $97-million surplus last year, much of which went to the very impressive $700-million endowment fund (which does not include UBCs sizeable real estate holdings and other assets). The message taken away from the unions was clear: UBC will make room to pay its highest paid employees, but not its unionized workers.

UBC's support staff union, meanwhile, refuse to mine their existing collective agreement for cost savings in order to subsidize raises to higher-paid employees. "Even the university concedes that the Local 2950 wage grid has been underfunded since its inception," says Forhan, citing a February 28 letter sent to the BC Liberals and signed by all 25 BC post-secondary institution presidents including Toope. "Yet 'the best and the brightest' apparently cannot find a way to put money into the grid without risking the wrath of the BC Liberals. All we are asking for is a fair and respectful deal."

Teaching Assistants are asking for COLA pay increases and tuition increase protection. Since tuition is a condition of employment, the recent 2 per cent increase to tuition counts as a wage decrease. CUPE 2278 is also requesting wage parity with T.A.s from University of Toronto, one of UBCs favourite benchmarks, who receive almost ten dollars more an hour.

Significantly, the T.A. local is also requesting extended hiring preference for all its members, which would guarantee graduate students teaching positions for close to the duration of their degrees. Currently, doctoral students are only eligible to teach for four years, though according to the university's own statistics, the average completion time for a PhD is six and a half years.

While securing fair wages and job security in one of Canada's wealthiest public institutions, which should be setting standards of equitable employment rather than flouting them, is doubtless important, favouring managerial and administrative positions over teachers, support staff and workers points to a larger disturbing trend in higher education. In The Fall of Faculty (2011), Benjamin Ginsberg points out that during the years 1975 to 2005, tuition in American universities tripled. Faculty-to-student ratios remained relatively the same, but the number of administrators and managers rose 85 per cent. Administrative salaries spiked as well. President Toope alone takes home almost $600 000 per year.

The conversion of Canadian "public" universities to factories for corporate profit continues apace. Students have no choice but to carry increasingly large amounts of debt to complete their studies, thus constraining them to choose an economically profitable degree while internalizing neo-liberal ideology. Student debt continues to subsidize remuneration to high-paying and proliferating managerial positions while unionized employees are told to tighten their belts no matter which way the economic weathervane points. A brief tour through this country's older institutions would pass buildings christened after scientists, writers and critics; today, new buildings bear the names of narcissistic philanthropists or future employers like Microsoft, Pfizer or Haliburton.

Unions have historically been at the front lines against the right-wing assault on public institutions. The three CUPE locals at The University of British Columbia deserve our support.

Michael Stewart is an employee of rabble.ca, a doctoral student in English and a proud member of CUPE Local 2278. He will be voting yes on Thursday's strike vote.

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