JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

Teaching assistants (TAs) and course instructors who are members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902 Units 1 and 5 recently voted to give the union strike mandates following a series of unfruitful negotiations with the university.

CUPE 3902 represents about 8,000 academic employees at the University of Toronto who work on contracts of one year or less.

The vote for Unit 1, which represents students and postdocs employed as TAs, course instructors, or in other academic capacities, saw a record-high turnout of 1,723 people, with 90.3 per cent of votes in favour of the move, as reported on the union’s website on November 11.

The vote for Unit 5, which represents internally funded postdocs employed as researchers, saw a turnout of 179 people, with 81 per cent voting in favour of the move.

Though the vote doesn’t guarantee a strike immediately, the union can now legally call a strike at any time.

The implications of a potential strike are causing tensions between students, instructors, and the administration.

For the union, the primary goal of negotiations has been to seek wage increases to match inflation, and increases to benefits.

The union is also seeking tuition credits or waivers at U of T, as well as changes to university hiring policy. The TAs’ funding package has been frozen since 2008.

According to Ryan Culpepper, vice-chair of CUPE 3209 Unit 1, the university has disagreed with every major proposal the union has brought forward and has given less than half of the bargaining dates from previous years. 

For Culpepper, this inflexibility is as unacceptable as it is unprecedented. “To my knowledge, this round of bargaining marks the first time the university has come to the bargaining table demanding a total compensation freeze on Day One of negotiations,” Culpepper says.

Students and teachers

According to Culpepper, master’s and PhD students at U of T are awarded minimum funding of $15,000 per year for five years. The university may require graduate level students to work up to 205 hours under this funding package. 

Beyond these hours, TAs are paid at an hourly rate that is negotiated by CUPE 3902.

Currently, the negotiated earnings are $42.05 per hour at an average of 5 hours per week.

Culpepper told The Varsity that course instructors and TAs at the university have been unionized for 41 years, and have opened negotiations with the university 18 times since 1973.

These negotiations have led to three strikes, with the latest one occurring in 2001.

Effect on undergraduate students 

A strike by CUPE 3902 would impact students who rely on TAs and course instructors for grading, office hours, tutorials, exam invigilation, and lectures.

According to Culpepper, a strike would mean the cancellation of all these aspects of work including the potential cancellation of some classes.

If a strike were to occur, it is likely that there would be picket lines that may result in some buildings being closed.

Students are concerned that these actions would unfairly target learners who benefit from union members’ work.

Anna McNeil, a third-year kinesiology student, said that she doesn’t think students should be penalized for any failed negotiations. “Their problem does not have to do with the students, but with the institution of University of Toronto, and [they] should find a better way to come to an agreement,” McNeil says.

McKenzie Embree, an upper-year environmental studies and political science student, echoes McNeil’s concerns, adding that she thinks it is greedy for instructors to exert this position. “I think that the TAs already receive more than they give by breaking down their wages to $42.05 per hour and benefits. They are… trying to use the fact that they can control our future by putting our education in the balance,” Embree says.

TA SPEAKS Out

Craig Smith, a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and a TA for POL208, Introduction to International Relations, thinks that the motivation for the strike vote came down to negotiating in good faith.  “The purpose of the initial strike vote is to change the bargaining dynamics at the table,” Smith says, adding: “If the university bargained in good faith, none of this would have to happen. It’s in nobody’s interest to shut down the university.”

Smith says that, as a TA, he does not want to jeopardize any learning opportunities for his students, but says that the university has put instructors in a tight situation. “It’s terrible that in every bargaining round they have to test the solidarity of the union, and test our willingness to put our students in the middle of this,” he explains. 

Smith adds that he — like most TAs — loves his teaching position. “Most people who I know are doing this because they are passionate about the areas that they teach in, and they love to teach,” Smith says.

According to Angela Hildyard, U of T vice-president of human resources and equity, U of T offers TAs a greater level of support than peer institutions such as McGill University or the University of British Columbia. 

Hildyard remained optimistic that negotiations will continue and that a strike will not be necessary. “[T]he parties have had a series of negotiation sessions which the university hopes to continue. Its goal remains to arrive at a renewal collective agreement that is reasonable considering all the interests at stake, one of which is to be responsive to the Ontario Government’s stated position that there be no net increases in compensation in broader public sector settlements,” she says.

Smith emphasized that TAs are often an integral part of the learning process for U of T students. “For most students, [TAs] do the majority of the teaching. For the university to put those people in a precarious situation, I don’t understand their interest in doing that,” he says.

 Smith adds that the motivation to get involved transcends direct rewards for many TAs and becomes a matter of political importance. “The reason that departments that are more political are so turned on to this stuff is because we realize that none of the gains that we have now would have been possible without solidarity and mobilization in the past,” he says.

The current collective agreement expired on April 30, 2014.

Correction: The TA wage rate is $42.05/hour, not $45/hour as was incorrectly stated.

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