With record voter turnout, the union that represents contract academic workers at U of T, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, recently voted 90 per cent in favour of a strike mandate as part of its bargaining with the university. The strike mandate does not actually declare a strike; rather, it gives the union “the mandate (or right) to declare a strike when strategically necessary.”
CUPE 3902 and U of T have been in negotiations over the next collective agreement since November. The union represents over 8,000 workers, including teaching assistants, course instructors, tutors, markers, exam invigilators, and chief presiding officers, who have been employed by the university during the past 12 months.
A university spokesperson wrote to The Varsity prior to the strike vote that they “recognize the important role of employees in the CUPE 3902 Unit 1 bargaining unit in ensuring that the University of Toronto continues to be the leading academic institution in Canada. The University also respects the Union’s process, including the decision to hold a strike vote, which is not an unusual step in the collective bargaining process.”
Demands from CUPE 3902
“U of T has not yet meaningfully addressed the union’s high priority issues including hiring and pandemic-related working conditions,” wrote Amy Conwell, Chair of CUPE 3902, in a press release following the vote.
Some demands set out by CUPE 3902 at the beginning of its bargaining include clear parameters of job duties, more hours of work provided for remote or hybrid work, and paid equity training on a variety of topics. The union is also asking for increased wages, benefits, and paid sick days.
In an interview with The Varsity, Conwell emphasized the importance of this bargaining process. “Our demands are going to increase the quality and experience of undergraduate education at the university,” she said. “We’re a large group of workers who have the ability to impact undergraduate education in a really huge way.”
Continuation of bargaining
Following the strong strike mandate vote, Conwell expressed that the bargaining team “would expect any employer to immediately start making some movement at the bargaining table.” According to Conwell, the union was “surprised that that didn’t actually happen.” Although the union’s first course of action is still to “amicably” resolve issues, the unit is ready for collective action should U of T not respond adequately to the unit’s demands.
According to Conwell, the university has expressed that the pandemic is “not a reason to bargain longstanding changes to a collective agreement that will hold for years to come.” Conwell argued, however, that since the pandemic will likely not end soon, “it’s actually really important and necessary to consider this particular circumstance in bargaining.”
CUPE 3902 continues to be in negotiations with the university until the two parties reach a tentative agreement and ratify it.
Editor’s note (March 3): This article has been updated to correct that CUPE members last striked in 2015.