No End in Sight for Concordia Labour Negotiations

Photo Erin Sparks
Photo Erin Sparks

The deals may not be ideal, but the leaders of Concordia’s library support staff and technicians unions say their respective new labour contracts are acceptable given the situation at Concordia.

“I believe that in these circumstances, the circumstances being the cuts to funding at the university level and the tough [financial] position for universities in general, that this was the best deal we could get for our membership,” said Alex Macpherson, president of the Concordia University Union of Support Staff–Technical Sector.

“I’m glad that I will be able to get a settlement that I know my technicians can live with.”

According to Macpherson, negotiations for ancillary benefits were largely dropped and the new agreement for CUUSS-TS is largely focused on salary.

Both CUUSS-TS and the Concordia University Library Employees’ Union agreed to a 10 per cent wage increase over six years, according to a press release for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, Quebec’s second-largest trade union federation, which contains five local unions at Concordia including both CUUSS-TS and CULEU.

A Long and Windy Road

According to both Macpherson and CULEU President Irene Fernandez, negotiations between their respective unions and Concordia were dragged out extensively.

The last labour agreements for CUUSS-TS and CULEU both expired in May 2009. Negotiations for CUUSS-TS took over 42 months.

CULEU began its first round of negotiations with the university in January 2010, but Fernandez says talks stalled repeatedly throughout the process.

Fernandez says the union originally was asked by the university to enter new contract discussions using an interest-based bargaining format, a negotiation process that first identifies both sides’ primary issues and then looks to address them by consensus.

CULEU was told at first by the university that IBB negotiations would last six months to a year,
according to Fernandez, but it became clear both sides were unable to come to an accord in that timeframe.

“Even the person who was conducting the interest-based bargaining decided there was just no way that this was going to work, and she left,” Fernandez said.

“We were back to again being at the table […] in conciliation, and even that broke down.”

We spent so many months, so many sessions, building up certain articles that were not necessarily even union demands, but were from the university side [as well], and all that sort of went out the window.
—Irene Fernandez, CULEU president

A New Philosophy

Speaking to The Link in August, Concordia President Alan Shepard said some of the duties of upper administration were reshuffled over the summer. VP Services Roger Côté was then made responsible for human resources.

In a meeting with Côté in August, Fernandez says the new supervisor of human resources had a more receptive philosophy to her union’s issues.

“I presented what our issues were, what our problems were as far as negotiations go. [I said] we really need a contract to create a new atmosphere, and he seemed to understand,” she said.

“He seemed to be more open; he wants to go that route for the future, and I hope that’s true.”

Within two weeks, CULEU and Concordia were back at the bargaining table, according to Fernandez. But while the university was more open to negotiation and had dropped most of its demands, the union was expected to drop any ancillary concerns its membership had and to discuss only salary, Fernandez continued.

For Macpherson, the university changed gears at the bargaining table before Côté became involved.

“I think the change started happening in the spring, so I’m not sure it was directly [a result of] Roger Côté,” he said.

“But there was a great willingness from human resources [to make a deal]. They came to the table [in the spring] willing to talk about other solutions that had been there previously,” he continued.

“We saw real movement in the spring, but we didn’t come to a resolution […] I believe that momentum just carried over to the fall.”
Like Fernandez, Macpherson says he did feel the university was trying to end the years-long conflict swiftly.

As for CULEU, Fernandez says an agreement was inevitable as the union was tired after the many years of negotiation.

“What can I say? I mean, in terms of [the amount of] time it was so frustrating and so difficult,” said Fernandez.

“We spent so many months, so many sessions, building up certain articles that were not necessarily even union demands, but were from the university side [as well], and all that sort of went out the window,” she added.

“But we wanted to finally finish and come to an end of this, so here we are.”

Onward, Together?

Including CUUSS-TS and CULEU, six of Concordia’s unions now have labour agreements in place.

The local United Steal Worker unions for trade employees at both the Loyola and Sir George Williams campuses reached an agreement with the university Tuesday Sept. 17.

The Sir George Williams employees had been working without a contract since May 2008, and the Loyola employees were not far behind, with over four years without an agreement.

Full-time faculty ratified a new accord in March and part-time faculty teaching at Concordia’s Centre for Continuing Education have a contract in place until September 2015.

But over half of Concordia’s 13 unions are still without contracts, many working for years without an agreement.

While CUUSS-TS and CULEU’s agreements indicate some progress is being made to address the gridlock, Danièle Berthiaume, president of the Concordia University Support Staff Union, says the university is offering similar deals focused solely on salary to every support staff and trade union.

The next round of negotiations for CUSSU begins on Wednesday, but Berthiaume says the union will not be bound by what she refers to as a “settlement” rather than an agreement.

“This settlement proposal is stating, ‘Let’s close the conversation, let’s just address the cost of living and we’ll pick it up after the next agreement,’” she explained.

“We still have discussions with the university on items that are not monetary, not cost of living related […] They haven’t given any concessions at all.”

Incoming president of the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association David Douglas says CUPFA’s experience is a little different than that of the support staff and technical unions. Negotiations with academic unions, including CUPFA and the Concordia University Faculty Association, were moved into the Office of the Provost earlier this summer.

As for Douglas, he says the university’s new approach seems so far to be more open to new agreement options.

“We rejected their vision of our collective agreement 10 months ago, and it took 10 months to finally say, ‘Yes, we’re changing this tactic and going to something different,’ which is a positive sign, but of course, we would have to see what the new approach will be,” he said.

According to Douglas, there is reason to be hopeful for a resolution, though tepidly so.

“I think I’d be cautiously optimistic, but I think I would also say the things we need to resolve are significant and they’re not particularly easy, so we have a lot of work still to do,” he said.

Echoing the sentiment, Berthiaume added she hopes the standstill on labour relations isn’t permanent.

“I’d like to be able to believe in Concordia, where there’s a better atmosphere; it shouldn’t be all ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it should really be we, for everything,” she said.

For Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota, the intention is for both sides to find something that works.

“Collective bargaining by its very nature is difficult and can become confrontational, though it shouldn’t be,” she said.

“I think that if people around the table are acting in good faith, and both working for something that comes out positively both for the university and the union, you get through that.”