MALLIKA MAKKAR/THE VARSITY

As the CUPE Local 3902 Unit 1 strike reaches the one-week mark, union members are calling on the University of Toronto to return to the bargaining table.

Last Friday, members of CUPE 3902 Unit 1, which represents some 6,000 teaching assistants and graduate course instructors, voted overwhelmingly to reject a last-minute deal that had been reached around 2:45 am that morning.

“Our members are engaging in the purest form of democracy by coming out in full force picketing and demonstrating, calling on the University Administration to return to the bargaining table where our own representatives are waiting,” said CUPE 3902 chair Erin Black in a Huffington Post article on Wednesday.

According to Black, the strike vote saw the largest voter turnout for contract academic locals in Canadian history.

Members of CUPE 3903, which represents some 3,700 contract faculty and teaching assistants at York University, have been on strike since Tuesday. The two parties reached a tentative agreement late Friday night.

Bargaining

According to U of T vice-president, human resources & equity, Angela Hildyard, the university remains in contact with the provincial mediator regarding CUPE Unit 1, and has been advised that as soon as the mediator thinks there is a basis to return to the bargaining table, he will invite the parties to do so. “We have indicated that we are, of course, prepared to accept that invitation,” Hildyard says.

However, some CUPE 3902 Unit 1 members, like Michael Collins, a PhD candidate in English, say they are frustrated by the administration’s apparent unwillingness to return to the bargaining table. “I don’t think many of us feel hopeful, let alone confident, that a deal will be reached soon. Every signal from the [university administration] thus far indicates that they are digging in their heels and are prepared to fight dirty,” Collins says.

Collins also expressed concern over tactics university administration has used to attempt to sway public opinion. “I’d say it has damaged any sense of pride or belonging I might feel toward the University of Toronto as a whole — they have waged a very dishonest and adversarial campaign against us,” he says. “You do not treat colleagues the way striking workers have been treated by this [public relations] campaign.”

Andrea Day, a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of English, echoed Collins’ concern. “By publicly devaluing our research and teaching skills and attempting to portray us as petulant children… the University has shown that its position lacks substance and that it expects [undergraduates] and community members to be fooled by smoke and mirrors,” she says.

On Wednesday, CUPE 3902 also expressed concern over a crane that was photographed blocking off access to strike headquarters.

According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations at U of T, the planning for the replacement of the two cooling units on the roof of the Earth Sciences building has been in the works for a month.

At the Mississauga campus, shuttle bus and public transit stops have been moved due to the strike, raising the ire of many students.

Last Friday, students from across the Greater Toronto Area joined a University of Toronto Students Union led strike.

According to a statement from the Arts and Science Students’ Union, some students have reported being e-mailed by departments to conduct TA labour. “We ask our students to be incredibly careful of this. The departments inolved in doing this do not have your best interest in mind,” the statement reads.

Minimum funding package

Chief among union grievances has been the guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 annually.

“Every PhD student we admit to the University of Toronto receives a guaranteed level of financial support, unlike many of our peer institutions, which do not provide a universal funding commitment,” Hildyard and U of T vice-president and provost Cheryl Regehr said in a joint statement.

The university offers PhD students a funding commitment for up to five years of their program.

The package was last increased more than seven years ago. Toronto’s low-income cut-off for a single person is about $23,000 per year.

“The administration has to raise the guaranteed minimum funding package. There is no way out of it,” says Collins.

“If you tell someone on the street that workers who make $42/hour are on strike, they’ll think it’s outrageous — and that was indeed the University’s opening gambit,” Collins adds.

According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, total funding packages for graduate students in the doctoral stream range from $23,400 to over $46,000.

“We negotiated a generous agreement that lifts teaching assistants’ compensation and benefits to some of the highest levels in Canada,” says Blackburn-Evans.

“If the administration is to be believed, many PhD students already make much more than [$20,000], so a guaranteed minimum of $20,000 really should be no hardship to offer,” counters Collins.

Student recruitment

Some CUPE 3902 Unit 1 members have also noted that the ongoing strike could affect recruitment of prospective graduate students.

“The paltry sub-poverty funding package itself is a liability to recruitment, and has been for some time now,” Collins says.

Collins says that PhD students at Princeton University receive almost twice the University of Toronto’s guaranteed minimum funding package, while many non-Ivy League American schools leave surpass U of T’s funding levels.

“I have heard the counter-argument that the U of T’s prestige counts for more than money, but this is a silly kind of thing to say. It’s obvious that prestigious institutions fund well, and in any case you can’t pay your rent or buy groceries with prestige,” Collins adds.

A seventh-year PhD student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, voiced particular concern over funding packages for international students at U of T. “It’s totally unclear to incoming international students that they’re funded for five years but expected to take six or seven, and that the minimum guaranteed funding is too low to live on, while their opportunities to get work that would take them above that level are regulated by the university, and they are ineligible for most Canadian external scholarships that domestic students rely on,” the student says.

Academic continuity

In a letter to members, dated February 24,  Scott Prudham, president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), addresses “questions about possible changes that faculty and librarians might be asked to make to courses and programs” by university administration during the strike.

The fear is that the Academic Continuity Policy (ACP), adopted in 2012, could give the administration the power to unilaterally change course requirements in the name of “academic continuity.”

“For academic freedom to be upheld,” the letter says, “discretion on whether and what changes to course grading schemes and assignment designs need to be… must remain primarily in the hands of course instructors and program coordinators.”

Normally, grading is covered under the University Academic and Grading Practices Policy. Once the grading policy of a given course is announced, it can only be changed with student approval.

The course instructor must organize a class vote on proposed changes, and “the consent of a simple majority of students attending the class” is required for changes to go into effect.

The ACP may allow the University to bypass this.   

Prudham says that, as worded, the ACP “puts tremendous power in the hands of the Provost to force changes at the level of individual courses.”

Implemented in January 2012, the ACP allows the vice-president and provost, or the Academic board, to declare a state of academic disruption.

Disruptions can be declared in the event of “potential threats to the continuity of… academic operations,” whether at the level of individual programs, departments, faculties, campuses or U of T as a whole.

The policy also says the “principles” of “fairness to students,” “integrity of academic programs,” and “primacy of the educational mission” must “guide” the declaration of, and response to, a disruption.

Prudham’s letter expresses worry that “undue pressure” could be placed on faculty members “to reconfigure or otherwise significantly alter their courses or those of striking instructors”

This could take away “[students’] rights to be meaningfully consulted about changes to courses in the middle of the term,” Prudham says.

However, university administration has given assurances that they intend and will do no such thing.

A strike FAQ from the Office of the Vice President & Provost states that, “Faculty members’ rights to academic freedom… will be fully respected during the strike,” and that no members of the administration will force faculty to do anything inconsistent with this principle.

Prudham says that, thus far, the UTFA is satisfied with the assurances they have received administration.

Next steps

Still, both parties say they would like to reach an agreement so that the university can return to normal operations.

“All of us would rather be in our classrooms or in our labs instead of standing outside in the freezing cold, and seeing that our students understand that a strike for our working conditions is also a strike for their learning conditions has warmed our hearts,” Day says.

Separately, voting to ratify a deal between university administration and CUPE 3902 Unit 3, which represents some 1,000 sessional professors and other non-student academic staff, is slated to continue on Monday and Tuesday.

With files from Meerah Haq

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