On July 6, 2015, the binding arbitration result between U of T and CUPE 3902 — that is, the teaching assistants and course instructors union — came in. Surprising no one, the arbitrator did not side with the union — decision was in favour of the last University proposal.

This proposal was voted down at ratification once before on March 18 for three main reasons. First, it failed to guarantee per-member benefits for the funded cohorts of graduate students and opted instead for lump sum payments in the form of a Graduate Bursary Fund and a Tuition Relief Fund. Second, it merely reshuffled the numbers from the February 27 agreement — you know, the one we initially struck against, by dropping the proposed wage growth from 4.50 to 3.75 per cent and jostling the difference into the above mentioned lump sums. And lastly, it refused to weigh the future top-ups against inflation, enrollment, and increasing yearly tuition rates.

Only at U of T will one be lucky enough to enter a labour dispute, participate in a historical vote against a reshuffled pre-strike agreement, then ballot arbitration, just to get stuck with what was rejected two weeks prior to the arbitration. All that while setting the precedent that going on strike is, plainly said, just useless (since most likely people will end up with what they voted against).

I know that some are viewing these top-ups as significant gains. I, however, do not. A top-up that is not economically weighted against inflation, skyrocketing enrollment rates, and other capitalist perks will not mean much in the long run. Even if these will constitute the baseline for the next bargaining round, we are talking about a top-up baseline, and not a real structural criterion that will cement the per-member language into our agreement.

But what comes to light for me the most is the corruption to be found in the entire bargaining system. Let us remember that president Meric Gertler called out the binding arbitration just two days before the Ontario Public Sector Sunshine list came out. The list contained the names of several U of T administrators, cashing in a 20 per cent wage increase over the course of the last year. This was by no means a mere coincidence. We could have had great bargaining power if the public and the media were to see these increases juxtaposed to the rates of current graduate funding packages, which had remained stagnant since 2008.

Arbitration was also supported by our union — not only the CUPE national chapter, but, also the local one. A lawyer was brought to our last union meeting to present the bright side of the story: an arbitrator could draw the line down the middle or even render us a greater deal.

Yet no meaningful discussions took place vis-à-vis the actual risks that such decision would entail (i.e. like having to accept a formerly voted down agreement). Could it be that we are more concerned with using up the strike fund than making substantial gains through an actual strike?

I am not one for conspiracy theories; still, the reality remains that we keep moving further right on the ideological line, while the left is no longer the left as we know it. Or, as Žižek would say, the old bourgeoisie is no longer the old bourgeoisie as we know it. Re-functionalized as a class of salaried managers, union executives and university administrators might represent different sides of the same coin, servicing the marketization of the state and subsequently the corporatization of education.

This is not intended to be read as an anti-union rant — I firmly believe that unions are one of the last assets we have in fighting against the system in our times of continually entrenched austerity. Rather, I am using the notions of “union executives” and “salaried managers” in a philosophical sense.

That is, not referring to anyone in particular, but rather to the corporatization of everything from union practices to our education, and of our own selves. And we’re so knee-deep in it that trying to lift a foot out will only sink us further.

Raluca Bejan is a PhD student in Social Work at University of Toronto and a CUPE 3902 member.

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