Here’s what you need to know about Bill 124 and CUPE 3903

(Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash, Edited by Riddhi Jani)

On March 14, York sent out an email detailing the latest updates on the strike initiated by CUPE 3903, the union representing nearly 3,000 part-time faculty and graduate students at the university. This follows a statement released on March 13 by Dan Bradshaw, the assistant vice-president of the university’s labour relations, regarding rejected proposals around Bill 124.

“Following an offer of interest arbitration from five other Unions at York; YUFA, YUSA-1, OHFA and CUPE 1356 and 1356-1, we made a similar proposal to CUPE 3903 Units 1, 2 and 3 on March 7, 2024,” Bradshaw wrote, expressing disappointment at the union’s rejection of proposals for “mediation-arbitration to address issues of salary for the Bill 124 moderation period.”

This begs the question: what is Bill 124 and what is the moderation period?

What is Bill 124?

Bill 124 was passed in 2019 by the Ford government and greatly impacted public sector workers, such as nurses, educators, and other civil employees. The bill capped salary increases at “one per cent a year for three years” in order to help with the province’s accumulated debt due to the Government “inheriting a very substantial deficit.”

This law was first declared unconstitutional by a lower court in 2022. A door then opened for unions with contracts that included wage re-opener clauses to be able to seek out “retroactive pay increases” that go above the one per cent per year cap that Bill 124 ruled. 

On February 23, the Ontario governmen trepealed Bill 124, citing that “repealing the Bill will solve for the inequality of workers created by the recent court decision.” As of March 15, Ontario owes nearly $6 billion in compensation to workers of the public sector who were impacted by the provincial government’s unconstitutional legislation on wage restraints.

This decision, in addition to the labour disruptions and expressions of solidarity from students and faculty, shows a promising direction for future bargaining meetings with the university. 

How has Bill 124 impacted CUPE 3903?

Seeking compensation for the three years that Bill 124 restrained wage increases is only one of the many issues that CUPE 3903 wants the university to address. Of additional importance is the university’s failure to address three key concerns of CUPE members: salaries and benefits, job stability, and protecting members’ rights. Other concerns pertain to changes to contract professors’ job security and job application (as well as re-application), and the university’s failure to address workplace discrimination and racism.

Creative Writing Professor Samantha Bernstein, who is one of 3000 members of CUPE 3903, tells Excalibur about the union’s stance on Bill 124: “The university is offering decent back pay, but only to people who currently hold contracts with York. Considering that the back pay is owed to graduate students and contract faculty, it’s clearly the case that many people employed in those three years of illegally suppressed wages are no longer employed there.

“The university is therefore using a bill that has been declared illegal, including on appeal by the government, to deny payment owed to people for work they did.”

With regards to salaries and benefits, Bernstein notes that the university is not taking into consideration inflation and the “cost-of-living crisis.” This speaks to a broader issue across all Canadian universities, where a growing pattern over the last ten years shows that universities have “decreased their tenured faculty, and now rely on contract profs for roughly half of their courses,” Bernstein explains. 

While other post-secondary institutions seem to have successfully negotiated pay increases that ensure their faculty and staff are not left in poverty, York still has some catching up to do. 

According to Bernstein, many professors and graduate students alike have had to resort to relying on second sources of income in order to afford the basic necessities, with some relying on food banks to get by. Given that the university has significantly increased its senior administration “in the past five years, and they have seen raises that average 20 per cent, this underpayment of professors seems not only unnecessary but cruel,” Bernstein concludes. 

Timeline of events leading up to the strike at York

  • June 1, 2023: The union gave the university a notice to bargain. As stated by the Government of Ontario, in order for the negotiation process to commence between an employer and a union, one party must notify the other that they wish to “begin negotiations for a collective agreement.” 
  • June 29, 2023: Following the provision of a notice to bargain from CUPE 3903, the university and the union then had a legal duty to start meeting in order to begin “[bargaining] in good faith, and to make every reasonable effort to conclude a collective agreement.” Negotiations began.
  • August 25, 2023: In a letter signed by four different parties — CUPE 3903, CUPE 1356, York University Faculty Association (YUFA), and York University Staff Association (YUSA) — union leaders addressed President Rhonda Lenton, urging the university to commence “wage re-opener discussions” in relation to Ontario’s Bill 124. The union leaders expressed their concerns over how all four unions were “subject to the wage moderation provisions of Bill 124.”
    • At the time this letter was written, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice had just struck down Bill 124, declaring that “it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Other Ontario post-secondary institutions had responded to this court decision by agreeing to “re-negotiate” compensations and wages which were previously “subject to the one per cent wage moderation cap.”
  • October 23, 2023: CUPE 3903 met with the university alongside representatives from six other unions. During this meeting, the university gave a thorough overview of York’s financial position in regards to Bill 124. 
  • Continued negotiations into the 2023 fall term saw bargaining meetings centred around York’s response to Bill 124, which continued to be critically addressed leading up to the new year.

CUPE 3903 holds a Q&A session in February

Following an unsuccessful four-hour meeting on February 16, the union held an emergency Q&A session on February 22 to address students’ questions and concerns. Nearly 200 members were in attendance at the two hour meeting. Representatives addressed concerns from graduate students who would be without work for the duration of the strike, as they are contractually obligated to stop their duties: grading, teaching, and answering students’ questions related to any coursework.

“There is strength and power in a union,” said a representative of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC). “Ultimately, this is on the employer to do the right thing and come with a better deal, and it won’t happen if we don’t take action; we have far more to win by defending each other and standing with each other.”

For international graduate students, the strike raises concerns over the status of their study permits, visas, and funding. Union representatives have provided information regarding various emergency and hardship funds that would be available to students soon. These funds are “donations coming in from locals [showing] solidarity,” assured a contract professor belonging to CUPE 3903 Unit 2.

For CUPE 3903 members performing strike duties, they will receive compensation during this period of labour disruption, and talks about possible remediation were also proposed during the Q&A. 

“We are trying to get better wages for workers, which is why we’re going on strike and asking people to join us, because we’re trying to ensure that all workers are being paid what they’re worth,” said the union member.

Is the university’s financial situation delaying a collective agreement with CUPE 3903?

Reasons for the delay in striking a deal and achieving a collective agreement on these negotiations were detailed in a letter written by Dan Bradshaw on December 15, 2023. Following the discussions in the fall, the university alleged that the unions’ proposal of an annual five per cent wage increase “for each of the three years of the moderation period [of Bill 124]” exceeded the monetary amounts awarded to other unions for the exact same time period. Other reasons for refusing the unions’ proposals were linked to York’s slow financial recovery from lower international enrolment, “resulting in missed targets for the last three years.”

While it is true that many post-secondary institutions have been facing rising economic pressures, York had a strong budget performance during the two years of the pandemic (2020 to 2022). What followed, however, was that the university’s financial strength from these two years resulted in numerous institutional investments, including “improving infrastructure, pedagogical innovation, deferred maintenance and implementing strategic plans.” This, in addition to an unpredictable lower domestic and international enrolment post-pandemic, has resulted in amassing pressure on York’s  budget

As of March, these concerns over “fair and equitable increases to wages and compensation” have not yet been addressed by York. 

Some undergraduate students agree with the unions’ values, noting that these are reasonable demands. As Aqib Chaudhry, a third-year creative writing student, tells Excalibur, “As students, we rely on the wellbeing and efforts of our faculty, and it’s only reasonable that all involved in the university recognize [the faculty] as one of the core pieces of the institution’s function.”

Ollie Levai, a third-year student completing a double major in English and creative writing, is in full agreement, stating that they “stand with CUPE all the way.”

To show solidarity and support for the union, students are encouraged to write to the administration, the Deans for their respective faculties (for LA&PS, J.J. McMurtry, In their correspondences, students are encouraged to urge the administration to offer a fair deal, to express their support for the striking workers, and to state how continuing to run classes during the strike is damaging to their education. 

About the Author

By Atena Bazargan

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