In a recent article in this very publication, Zach Morgenstern reported on the University of Toronto’s alleged plans to employ non-unionized custodial staff in buildings that currently employ unionized labour, specifically Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3261 workers. In fact, the new custodial staff in U of T’s Faculty of Law buildings (Falconer, Flavelle, and the new Bora Laskin Law Library), the Edward Johnson Building, and most recently its dental facility, will be unionized, albeit just under another union’s banner and at significantly lower rates than their U of T counterparts. So what’s the big deal? It’s fair to say that most U of T students don’t plan for a future in caretaking.

Consider the health of unions as canaries in a coal mine. From the ’50s to the ’70s, at the height of union power in Canada, real wages in the economy increased, the middle class grew, wage disparity shrank, and our economy boomed. From the ’80s onwards, with the advance of globalization and the increasing fluidity of capital, union power in the private sector has been in decline. That has been followed by a slow decline of union power in the public sector. Now, in the higher education sector, which in U of T’s case is both a private and public venture, unions are beginning to experience a similar fate. Unfortunately, as famed economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, the decline in union clout has been associated with a pronounced rise in income and wealth inequality.

Furthermore, a quick glance at the emerging economic landscape reveals the realities that many graduates will soon face: increasing workplace precarity characterized by less full-time employment opportunities and more contract and part-time work; decreasing pension obligations by the employer; and shrinking benefits plans. As structural changes in advanced economies continue with the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution and its accompanying disruptive technologies (think Uber), many industries, both unionized and nonunionized, will be affected. As the collective action by employees to bargain for fair wages and decent working conditions diminishes in the face of increasing prosperity amongst large corporations and institutions like U of T, who stand to benefit from these changes, who, then, will have the authority, the experience, or the legitimacy to protect those who are left vulnerable?

The growth of inequality, the rise of wage disparity, and the continued squeeze on the middle class is not just a union problem. It is a new reality that will touch many graduates who aspire to earn a decent income, raise a family without financial worry, and achieve many of their goals without fear of wondering how they will simply pay the bills. That U of T is following a race-to-the-bottom corporate model whereby short-term cost savings are prioritized over ensuring that long-time front-line service employees can earn a decent living in an increasingly expensive city is a shame about which we should all be mindful. So U of T is contracting out caretaking duties. Why should you care? It may very well be a shame that not only touches our most vulnerable employees but all of us down the road.

Ian Hutson is a casual workers representative with CUPE 3261

Photo Credit/Fraser Allan Best

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