Teaching assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike.
Hundreds of classes could be suspended indefinitely, and, as of Monday morning, picket lines will surround all three campuses.
In a meeting last Friday at Convocation Hall, members of CUPE 3902 Unit 1 voted overwhelmingly to reject a last-minute deal that had been presented to them.
Unit 1 represents approximately 6,000 teaching assistants and other student academic staff.
“They spat in our faces for eight months, and gave us a deal that meant we would continue to lose money, and now are disappointed that we won’t take it,” says Craig Smith, a teaching assistant and outreach co-ordinator on the Strike Committee for Unit 1, referring to university administration.
“We are disappointed that while a tentative agreement unanimously approved by the Unit 1 bargaining team was reached late Thursday night, Unit 1 members who attended a meeting Friday afternoon voted not to send the agreement to the full bargaining unit membership for ratification,” said Angela Hildyard, U of T vice-president, human resources & equity, in a statement on February 27.
A tentative agreement had been reached in the early hours of Friday, February 27 after negotiations were extended past the strike deadline.
However, the bargaining team is only empowered to present deals for approval to the union membership.
Erin Black, CUPE 3902 chair, says there were approximately 1,000 members present at the Friday meeting at Convocation Hall. “At least 90 per cent of them voted the agreement down right then and there,” she says.
STUDENTS AND THE PICKET LINE
CUPE 3902 leadership is not asking students to boycott classes.
All three campuses will remain open, and students are still responsible for fulfilling course requirements.
Some 700 members of Unit 1 have sole responsibility for courses, and most, if not all, of those courses are expected to be suspended for the duration of the strike.
Though the university plans to continue operating shuttle buses between the Mississauga and St. George campuses, they note that there may be delays and changes to transit schedules because of the strike.
“The University has indicated to CUPE 3902 Unit 1 that it intends to continue to operate during the strike and that it will make every effort to minimize the impact of the strike on its students,” Hildyard said in a second statement dated March 1.
Smith says that the strike is meant to stop work for the university that would be normally carried out by union members. “Going to class is not crossing the picket line… going into Robarts and getting a book isn’t crossing a picket line,” he says.
“We will be asking them [students], when they come to a picket line, to stop and chat with us about our issues and what we are fighting for,” says Tom Laughlin, chief spokesperson for the Unit 1 bargaining team.
DEAL REJECTED, NEGOTIATIONS TO CONTINUE
“We negotiated a generous agreement that lifts teaching assistants’ compensation and benefits to some of the highest levels in Canada,” said Cheryl Regehr, U of T vice-president and provost in a statement. “We are making this investment because of the importance we place on supporting teaching assistants.”
Smith says the deal involved a 4.5 per cent increase that was phased in over the three-year life of the contract. “We rejected the deal because the wages are still below inflation and it will still amount to a real loss of income,” he says.
“A good looking deal moves us closer to the poverty line, if not brings us to the poverty line,” he adds.
Smith also stressed the larger context of the negotiations. “The university spent eight months not meeting with us, and spent eight months lying to us about an Ontario government mandate,” he says.
Lama Mourad, a teaching assistant at U of T, found the administration’s proposal insulting: “Under these conditions, where we have to work an excessive amount of hours to be able to live at the poverty line, we won’t be able to teach students well or dedicate time to our research.”
“Members are tired of living in poverty and precarity,” agrees Black. “The package has not increased since 2008 and, as costs of living have increased, this means a decline in real income. $15,000 is 35 per cent below the poverty line for the city of Toronto.”
Laughlin says that the bargaining team is still supported by the members and still committed to getting a deal. “At this point, the goal is getting back to the table and getting something that the members will find satisfactory.”
As of press time, no dates are currently scheduled between the two sides.
The university is allowing Unit 1 members who wish to continue working to do so.
Wages and benefits would be allotted as described in the expired agreement.
“The union’s position is that members shouldn’t do that — that our bargaining position is stronger if we all withhold our labour together,” says Laughlin.
CUPE 3902 urges students to be vigilant about professors who may choose to change course requirements in order to not need teachers assistants.
“[I]t is important to understand that, for academic freedom to be upheld, discretion on whether and what changes to course grading schemes and assignment designs need to be made in the context of an academic disruption must remain primarily in the hands of course instructors and program coordinators,” said Scott Prudham, University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) president, in a letter to faculty members.
“UTFA would consider it unwelcome and provocative for undue pressure to be brought to bear on individual faculty members (or librarians who are teaching) to reconfigure or otherwise significantly alter their courses or those of striking instructors in ways that undermine the autonomy of course instructors and the academic integrity of courses and programs,” Prudham adds.
CUPE Unit 3, which represents around 1,000 sessional professors and other non-student academic staff, reached a tentative agreement with the university on February 18. However, this deal also needs to go through the ratification process. The first meeting is scheduled for Monday night.
“We believe the agreement contains real gains, especially in job security,” said Erin Black, who is also co-chief negotiator for Unit 3. “The job security commitment (guarantee of four half courses a year) has been made ongoing, rather than tied specifically to the life of a collective agreement.”
“The agreement also provides for modest across the board wage increases and lump sum payments to supplement those increases, as well as improvements to the Health Care Spending Account,” Black adds.
Update (Monday, March 2): At a meeting on Monday, CUPE 3902 Unit 3 voted to send that union’s tentative agreement with the university to a general membership vote.