The union representing York University teaching assistants and contract instructors spent almost $300,000 on food and beverages during the 2008-2009 strike at the school, delivering expensive meals to picket lines, and ordering enough for hundreds of people at a meeting that was sparsely attended, a forensic audit obtained by The Globe and Mail says.
Union members also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in strike pay without appropriate documentation. As a result, the local ended up with a debt of more than $800,000 to the national office of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the country's largest labour organization. The audit was commissioned by the union and done by accountant David Burkes, an expert on non-profit organizations.
A "complete breakdown of internal control led to a situation where dubious, spurious and possibly fraudulent claims were being submitted and paid," the 2011 audit stated.
Members of the local, CUPE 3903, will vote Tuesday on whether to accept a deal the union negotiated with the university to end a month-long strike, the first labour disruption since 2009. The executive of the local has changed since the 2008-2009 strike.
Paul Moist, the president of CUPE, declined to respond to e-mailed questions or an interview request from The Globe.
"We acknowledge there were some issues four years ago in Local 3903. CUPE National worked with the local membership and these issues were resolved three years ago," he said in a statement.
The audit was completed two years after the union's national office placed the York local under administration due to concerns over its finances and harassment. The local's executive was disbanded and its operations examined. It is not clear what measures were put in place to prevent similar problems in the future or during the current strike.
The cost of food was one of the most troubling concerns for the auditor. In one case, a single invoice stating "coffee, soup, bread and cookies" – supplied from November to February – was submitted to support two payments totalling $56,500.
The union officials did not put a lot of time into thinking about how to save money, the audit says.
Workers on the picket lines had deliveries of "burritos, wraps and chili" to the tune of approximately $80,000. And instead of buying hummus, cookies, muffins and clementines from another campus restaurant, the union should have gone shopping at "bulk food stores," the audit said.
"Lunches and dinners were expensed for Concord Cafe, Sheraton, Meron Banquets and Novotel [for union officials]. ... Less expensive alternatives were available at the York Campus that were not utilized on numerous occasions."
Alcohol was also flagged an issue. "Consuming alcoholic beverages is an unnecessary luxury, not a necesity, yet amounts were disbursed. ... the consumption of alcohol on the [members' union dues] may for some be considered abhorrent."
Each teaching or research assistant or contract instructor at York pays dues of approximately 2.5 per cent of their salary to the local.
The 2008-2009 strike lasted three months and was ended by back-to-work legislation.
The report said that central to the problems was "non-existent" book-keeping that forced the auditor to hire an external company to record 15,000 cheques manually. Bank deposit slips were missing, there were few descriptions of the purpose of cheques, strike pay sheets had only some of the required information, and a string of questionable payments were made to a restaurant on campus.
The audit stated it found invoices from the restaurant, Mangia-Mangia, that were in "consecutive numerical order," which it called "unusual," possibly indicating the union was the only customer.
A union executive also claimed as expenses the cost of brake and exhaust repairs.
When the local was placed under supervision, union members who opposed the move said the problems were not as deep-seated as may have appeared. A desire by the York union to "safeguard [its] autonomy" led it to make its own sign-in sheets and independent spreadsheets to keep track of finances, states an archived website from those opposed to supervision. The auditor said these records were inadequate.
Placing a union local under national administration is unusual, but not unique. In February, local 416, representing 6,000 City of Toronto workers, was placed under the national supervision of CUPE.