It’s workers versus employer at the University of Victoria as over 75 members of the United Steelworkers hit the picket line Friday demanding better wages and working conditions.
The twist in this labour dispute is that both parties are unions. The USW workers are employed by the University of Victoria Students’ Society in its Student Union Building as cleaners, bar servers, security, and management. Many of the employees are students and also members of the UVSS.
The striking workers are not employees of the university.
The main point of contention in the dispute are wages. Presently, many of the employees are the lowest paid workers in the building, earning $9.95 per hour.
The two sides are wider apart than the Strait of Georgia separating Victoria from the mainland. The union is demanding an increase of $1.50 to their hourly wage, the UVSS has offered an increase of 10 cents for servers at the union pub and 30 cents for all other workers making $9.95.
The current wage is a major point of contention and much is being made about it being less than $10.00 per hour. The UVSS has been actively campaigning for over a year demanding the government increase the minimum wage to $10.00 per hour. The UVSS lists this as one of their four primary campaigns on their website.
According to The Martlet, the student newspaper at UVic, the union will not settle for anything less than their proposed increase and it must be retroactive to May 1, when the previous contract expired.
The UVSS says the unions demands are unreasonable and has created a newsletter for students outlining their position.
UVSS chairperson Caitlin Meggs says the UVSS cannot afford the demands of the USW without either cutting services or increase student fees. “The demands would cost $300,000 in two years. This is money the student society does not have.” She says giving into the demands of the union would threaten the long-term health of the UVSS.
In December 2003, teaching assistants at the University of Victoria demanded wage increases of $8 to 10 dollars per hour. They were making $17 per hour at the time, but wanted the increase to similar wages at other BC universities. The UVSS fully supported the T.A.’s demands for an increase greater than what the UVSS currently pay some of its workers in total.
Meggs says the circumstances are different. “The student society is a non-profit organization,” she says. “It is unreasonable to expect that students can afford to pay for a 30 per cent wage increase.” She says UVSS looks at each labour dispute different based on the conditions and with different leadership each year, positions change. “The university has more resources,” says Megg.
Megg says the UVSS wants to return to the table and reach an agreement with its workers. “We want to be fair and reasonable.” The UVSS is willing to increase its offer at the negotating table.
Many students are using Facebook to express frustration at the strike. Both the workers and the UVSS have created competing groups on the social network.
Much of the criticism directed at the UVSS relates to its lowest pay being less than $10.00. Meggs says this criticism is unfair. “We paid the wages agreed to in the collective agreement signed three years ago,” she says. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had to increase wages and we are doing so.”
The student newspaper is promising to update its website as developments occur and the story has been picked up by both the local newspaper and news talk radio station.