More than 1,500 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902, Unit 1, voted on whether or not their bargaining team would bring a strike mandate into negotiations. 89.4 per cent voted for a strike mandate, announced on December 13.
Unit 1 of CUPE 3902 primarily represents teaching assistants (TAs), but also student and postdoctoral course instructors, and exam invigilators across all three campuses at U of T. The entire local itself counts more than 9,500 members among its ranks. The vote was held during the course of five days, from December 6 to 12, excluding the weekend.
This action does not mean that the union will go on strike; under Ontario law, they must hold these votes first before they are allowed to move towards a vote to actually have a strike or not. Organizations typically use these as leverage against their employer, in this case the University of Toronto, during bargaining negotiations.
Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice-President Human Resources and Equity at U of T, said that the university has three more scheduled negotiation dates with the union this month. “The University bargaining team is committed to continuing productive discussions toward an agreement,” she said.
Unit 1’s 2017-2018 bargaining platform includes: an increase of the minimum funding to $20,000 a year, improvements in mental health coverage, more accessible pregnancy and parental leaves, and the removal of student evaluations from hiring decisions. It also highlights having a $10,000 minimum instructor rate for every half-credit course, raising hourly wages, and lessening the wage gaps between exam invigilators and TAs.
Aleks Ivovic, Chief Spokesperson for the Unit 1 Bargaining Team, told The Varsity that the union’s proposals would “significantly improve the day-to-day lives of members,” and that the strike vote signals that they’re willing to fight for them. “If we are not able to reach such a tentative agreement or the members reject such an agreement,” Ivovic said, “the Union Executive may declare a strike following consultation with our members.”
The increase in minimum funding is especially contentious. In a Reddit post, Mathias Memmel, President of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), wrote, “To summarize, CUPE won’t accept anything less than $20,000 per TA, but the university’s position is that funding is an academic matter, not an employment matter (so they negotiate it with the faculties/departments, not with the union),” he wrote. “The $20,000 guarantee is CUPE’s red line, and things aren’t looking good.”
Memmel told The Varsity that, though unsurprised by the outcome of the vote, the UTSU’s main priority will be working to ensure that students are not negatively affected by a potential strike. He said, “both sides should do whatever they can to avoid a strike,” underlining that, with the case of Unit 3, an agreement was reached quickly after the vote.
The strike mandate vote comes three weeks after sessional lecturers and contract academic workers in Unit 3 came to a successful bargaining agreement during the third week of November. Unit 3 also voted for a strike mandate in their own vote.
The university’s collective agreement with Unit 1, struck up in May 2014, is set to expire this year on December 31. Negotiations have been ongoing since September. According to a Facebook post from the union, “The Unit 1 bargaining team is currently at the table and will continue to meet with the Employer in hopes of reaching a negotiated agreement.”
Unit 1 last went on strike two years ago, in an event that saw TAs picketing for close to a month, disrupting classes and tutorials.
The Varsity has reached out to CUPE 3902, Unit 1 and U of T for comment.