VANCOUVER (CUP)—A provincial plan to combine administrative services at B.C. universities has cast a shadow over labour negotiations at UBC.
The government hopes to save money by consolidating services at universities and colleges across B.C. But service and support staff unions currently striking at various B.C. universities say that this amounts to privatization and worry that some of their members may lose their jobs.
A $20 million cut is planned for the B.C.’s government’s entire post-secondary budget next year, and this plan is one of many ways for them to save some cash.
The province is calling the plan the “Post-Secondary Sector Administrative Service Delivery Transformation Project.” They’ve brought in consulting firm Deloitte to look at universities’ non-academic operations and deduce where things can be run more cheaply. The firm is considering whether everything from libraries to IT support could be run centrally for all B.C. universities.
The union representing service and support workers on UBC’s Vancouver campus, CUPE 116, is worried about what could happen if the project goes through. CUPE 116 president Colleen Garbe said that it will result in private companies taking over jobs from the union’s public-sector workers, whose job descriptions range from IT support, to janitorial work, to Campus Security.
“We’re not signing a collective agreement with that threat overhead,” Garbe said on Thursday. “They have to take that away, just like [the B.C. government] took … the threat of privatization of the liquor distribution branch away,” she says, referencing how the provincial government recently went back on its plans to privatize liquor distributions when labour negotiations with another public-sector union went sour. “That has to go.”
“[UBC] doesn’t agree with it, but at the end of the day, the University told us they have no control, ultimately, if the Government decides to contract services at UBC,” Garbe says.
But UBC plans to keep their bargaining with CUPE 116 limited to issues like wages and pensions, and doesn’t want to discuss this project at the bargaining table.
“Our bargaining proposals and the mandate we got from the government were completely independent of this particular review,” says Lucie McNeill, the director of UBC Public Affairs. UBC is participating in discussions about the project, and McNeill says that so far, she isn’t convinced that it will end with UBC staff jobs being outsourced.
“We have not had indication that this project would entail any kind of privatization,” McNeill says.
CUPE B.C., the group overseeing collective bargaining for the many CUPE unions across the Province, argues that centralized university services will wind up being less efficient.
“If you’re registering for a course, as a student, and you have to phone…or email somewhere that’s not your university and the person who’s actually dealing with your registration doesn’t work there, that would end up being a problem in the end,” says Jordana Feist, staff advisor for CUPE B.C.
A provincial steering committee working on the project will release a report about how to go forward by mid-Oct. Any decisions they make will be binding.
Minister for Advanced Education John Yap said the public may not see the report “before the committee completes its work.” Critics of the project are concerned that university staff and faculty will not get to have any input before any changes take place.
In Sept., the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators (FPSE) sent a letter co-signed by the faculty associations of 19 B.C. universities asking the government to hold a summit to discuss the issue. The group is worried that the plan will lead to layoffs.
“We want to talk to them about it, because we don’t really know much in the way of details,” says George Davison, secretary-treasurer of the FPSE. “We’re concerned about what may happen to students and support staff.” Davison continues, “If serious decisions are going to be made…we’d hope that stakeholders would be involved, including…support staff unions, faculty…and students.”
B.C.’s official opposition party also has a dim view of the project. “They’re looking at [this] not from the perspective of how can we better serve students, but how can we save money,” says Michelle Mungall, the NDP critic for advanced education. Still, Yap contends that B.C. universities should be able to cut $20 million—which accounts for one percent of the total budget for the sector—without hurting services to students.
“What we’re asking, what we’re talking about, is a one per cent opportunity for finding ways to work more efficiently,” Yap says.