In the aftermath of the month-long strike that ended with members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902’s Unit 1 voting to go into binding arbitration with their employer, the University of Toroto, a decision has finally been made. William Kaplan, the arbitrator, ruled in favour of the university on June 29, 2015.

“Having carefully considered the submissions of the parties in their detailed briefs, reply briefs, and at the hearing, I am left to conclude that the March 18 Memorandum should be given effect without the changes being sought by the union,” reads a portion of Kaplan’s decision.

The March 18 Memorandum to which Kaplan referred is the proposed agreement that members of CUPE 3902’s Unit 1, which represents approximately 5,500 TAs and other academic staff, rejected on March 23, 2015. This rejection vote prolonged the strike for four days.

Under binding arbitration, Unit 1 has no choice but to accept the deal.

The argument

Changes regarding the hours that teaching assistants (TAs) can work that count towards their funding package, the establishment of a new healthcare plan, and a guarantee of appointment extended to a sixth year for PhD candidates were among the terms decided in the collective agreement prior to the hearing.

Unit 1 voted to go on strike on February 27 after failing to reach an agreement with U of T pertaining to the Tuition Assistance Fund and the Graduate Student Bursary Fund, a dispute that was settled after the hearing.

The crux of the disagreement between the union and the university revolved around the responsibility to administer tuition relief funds to the Unit 1 members, as well as whether the funds would be capped at a fixed total of just over $1.6 million a year, or whether individual members would receive a minimum amount.

Although Unit 1 advocated for the latter, the university argued that the issues put forth by the union near the end of the strike were fundamentally different than those at the beginning. The arbiter’s decision means that the university will dispense a fixed amount of $1.6 million to the union each year. The union is then responsible for administering and dispensing the funds to its members.

The union divided

Ellie Adekur-Carlson, a PhD student and TA was recently elected to the incoming executive of CUPE 3902. She said that the bargaining team told union members to compromise and to lower funding package expectations to $17,500, claiming that they would not budge when it came to getting per-member entitlements.
However, Adekur-Carlson claims that the bargaining team backtracked, which she condemned as “sloppy and dishonest bargaining that was so focused on ending the strike that it was executed with poor strategy in a way that was so incredibly divisive that a lot of members have chosen to cut ties”

When the union’s bargaining team lowered their target on the minimum funding package from $23,000 to $17,500, TA Robert Fajber disagreed. “I feel like this was a really big mistake, and it was hard coming to the picket line the next day and trying to explain [the situation to those on strike],” Fajber emphasized that, despite the disappointment, the union remained strong; “[It] was still [a] victory for the union, and I think we need to call it as such.”

Fajber believes that the university ‘legally outmanoeuvred’ the union. Ryan Culpepper’s use of the word ‘aspirational’ when talking about the tuition funding packages was misinterpreted according to Fajber. “To use this as a measure of “want vs. need” is a complete mischaracterization of the quote,” he said.

Another area that Fajber found “personally insulting” was what he regarded as the arbitrator‘s disregard for rank and file members. Fajber pointed out that the arbitrator had gone with the idea that only the bargaining team should have the final say.

The university

Cheryl Regehr, vice-president and provost at the University of Toronto noted that membership in CUPE 3902 Unit 1 is not equivalent to being a graduate student. “We are absolutely committed to graduate student funding… but we see this as more of an academic discussion,” said Regehr.

In response to the recent backlash towards the university following a report detailing the growth of U of T’s endowment to $2.1 billion, Regehr explained that these funds are often subject to the will of the donors. While some of the funds go towards graduate student fellowships, other portions are allocated to buildings and other specific needs.

Regehr stressed that she was very pleased to see that the strike had officially ended. “It was very sad for me to see how this created divisions in the university… [it was] difficult to see our graduate students in this kind of position.”

“Despite the fact that things were really difficult [staff, faculty, and TAs] all worked to ensure the students’ success,”Regehr said.

The Strike in a snapshot

The Varsity first reported on the possibility of a strike in November 2014, after the previous collective agreement between the university and the union expired in April 2014.

At the time, CUPE 3902’s primary goals were: wage increases to match inflation, increased benefits, and tuition credits, or waivers, for teaching assistants in an effort to change the funding package for the first time since 2008. After months of failed negotiations, members of CUPE 3902 Unit 1 overwhelmingly voted to go on strike on February 27, 2015.

The strike caused a stir amongst undergraduates on all three campuses, many of whom joined their TAs on the picket lines and protested in solidarity with them.

As tensions rose and the strike went on, the union’s rejection of the March 18 Memorandum upped the movement’s momentum. This memorandum became the focal point of the university’s argument in mediation, holding that it is “the best evidence of the settlement that the parties would have reached.”

After about a month on strike, the members of CUPE 3902 Unit 1 voted to accept binding arbitration and returned to work just in time for final exams. However, for many students this was not enough to be able to finish the year with a grade that reflected their work, and resulted in the university implementing a controversial strike contingency plan that extended the deadline to either, Credit/No Credit courses or to drop them within the Faculty of Arts & Science.

While many different opinions emerged during this process, all parties agreed on the legitimacy of the union’s right to strike.

“If [other] avenues do not work, of course the union members have the right to choose strike action as a last resort… we’re pleased that [the strike] has concluded, now we look forward to focussing on the success of our students, including those in CUPE3902” said Regehr.

PhD candidate and TA Kassandra Luciuk noted that while unions are imperfect institutions, they remain both important and fundamental for workers, “Without them, it would be so much worse… We still have an outlet to call out our exploitation — that’s really, really important.”