Canada’s top-ranking university won’t stay top-ranked for long without anyone to actually do the work. 

This past March, for a moment, it looked like this would happen — that the university would grind to a halt. Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 3261 and 3902 voted to accept tentative agreements negotiated with the U of T administration, which came in moments before a strike deadline. Involved in the negotiations were representatives of CUPE 3902 units 1 and 5, which collectively represent almost 7,000 academic workers on campus. 

Although U of T avoided the strike, it first repeatedly delayed negotiation with CUPE. When Teaching Assistants (TAs) and contract lecturers notified the university that they planned to negotiate a new contract, U of T stood them up for two and a half months after their deadline to respond. When it did come to the table, union leaders accused the university of not matching the union’s “energy, preparedness, or sense of urgency.”

Students felt the impact of these tactics, too. The lack of transparency around the progress of negotiations left students in the dark about whether instructors would continue running winter classes and grading assignments. 

Meanwhile, the university has a notable track record of leveraging its international reputation as a research institution and boasting of its high rankings in Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings. U of T’s clout rhetoric lays the foundation of its “Boundless” and “Defy Gravity” research fundraising campaigns. 

But the lion’s share of actual academic workers at U of T are teaching and research assistants, sessional lecturers, and post-doctoral researchers. These academic workers are often in contract positions of relative precarity. U of T’s fundraising campaigns sweep the realities of academic work under the rug, but academic workers are critical to its research output. They are essential to maintaining the international reputation that the university boasts so highly of. 

This strike threat made at least one thing certain: until U of T starts respecting the academic workers that support its research output, it has no right to call itself a leading research institution. If U of T truly wants to call itself that, it needs to allocate more funds to contract academic workers. 

Its fundraising campaigns would be a good place to start. 

On the rhetoric of “Boundless” and “Defy Gravity”

In the past decade, U of T has had two large fundraising campaigns, both with the goals of obtaining large donations to cement U of T’s place as a leading academic and research institution. In 2011, U of T established its “Boundless,” campaign with the aim of obtaining funds for research. By 2018, Boundless had obtained $2.641 billion, a record high in the country. 

In 2021, the university launched the Defy Gravity Campaign, whose rhetoric, like Boundless, was chock full of lofty goals about improving the university, all tied back to alumni donations. As of June 2023, the Defy Gravity campaign had reached $1.6 billion in donations, as part of its larger goal of eventually raising four billion dollars. 

However, while U of T attempts to elevate its status as “a respected leader in research, an engine for economic prosperity, and an institution poised to take on the many global challenges that lie ahead” through the fundraising campaigns, when the campaigns describe how U of T will use their funds, neither contain mention of supporting the academic workers that actually make this happen. 

Some of the campaigns’ funding is funnelled into student aid. The university talks in its Boundless campaign report about supporting “research initiatives” and specific researchers already at the top of the research ladder — but it doesn’t elaborate about how or whether this funding actually diffuses to the academic workers who are working in their research labs. Tenured professors and research chairs are less likely to be concerned about affording their grocery bills. Before they reached that status, though, all those researchers were probably post-docs. Some were sessional lecturers, most were research assistants, and before that, maybe a TA. 

Neither Boundless nor Defy Gravity has campaigned with the intention of raising funds to support contract academic workers. We, The Varsity’s editorial board, ask: why not?

Jamming the flow of the academic pipeline

It is, therefore, quite odd to consider the slew of stories we’ve seen over the past few years detailing sessional professors who are let go for seemingly no reason, or TAs who cannot afford to even live in the same city where they work. The likelihood of finding secure academic employment at our university seems to be dwindling by the day. 

By failing to respect the rights of workers still climbing the academia ladder, U of T is ignoring the pipeline that plays a critical role in ensuring the university remains a leading research institution for decades to come. 

Precariously-employed faculty members have reported that the university’s policies make it essentially impossible for part-time and limited-term faculty to be considered for tenure by requiring candidates with full-time teaching loads who are ineligibility for research grants to have research productivity on par with their tenure-track peers. 

Furthermore, U of T only publishes employment statistics on the number and workload of appointed faculty members, not sessional instructors or adjunct faculty, making it exceptionally difficult to hold the university accountable for its practices of hiring, promoting, and letting go of precariously employed academic workers.  

The most recent agreement U of T successfully negotiated with CUPE3902 teaching assistants and course instructors is reassuring to see. What troubles us, however, is how long it took the university to get there. For years, these workers have reported struggling to afford basic living costs, weathering threats to their health care coverage, the massive setbacks on wages imposed by the now-void Bill 124, and the impacts of inflation in food and housing prices

The fewer full-time, tenure-track faculty there are, the more that we students will rely on precariously employed academic workers to get the education we pay for. For some of us, contract lecturers, post-doc students, and other precariously employed individuals teach our entire course load. How are they supposed to deliver quality instruction if they are juggling multiple part-time jobs and worrying about how they are going to afford rent? How can we hope to find research supervisors and get reference letters if the people who taught us cannot be certain they will have a job six months from now?

U of T’s track record of delaying negotiations

And it’s not a lack of effort on workers’ part that causes this lack of labour protections. When labour unions organize, the university has historically stuck to the same time-tested tactic: delaying and deflecting. Just like a student who always asks for last-minute extensions on assignments, this is not the first time the university has postponed talks with CUPE, or presented the union with laughable benefits, far from the proposed asks that workers so desperately need. 

On October 26, 2023, CUPE 3902 sent a bargaining notice to U of T, letting the university know that it would like to renegotiate its members’ prior collective bargaining agreement before the agreement expired at the end of the year. The university, in responding, waited 82 days to start the first talk with CUPE 3902, on January 15. This was a breach of provincial statutory obligations and directly contributed to the fact that the university reached agreements with CUPE at the latest minute possible.

The recent developments between CUPE 3902 and the University are simply the latest events in a longer saga of dilatory bargaining practices by the university. In 2014, when TAs from CUPE 3902 expressed dissatisfaction about their job benefits, the university ignored them for eight months. This so angered TAs at the time — rightfully so — that one interviewed TA said that U of T had “spat in [their] faces.” 

In 2015, TAs from CUPE 3902 unit one went on strike after rejecting a tentative agreement that included a below-inflation wage increase and a real loss of income. The strike lasted a month before TAs accepted a binding deal: a month in which students were confused, professors were overwhelmed, and TAs were fighting for their wages.

U of T, be the change you want to see

Given that public funding for higher education has been steadily eroding over the last decade, especially in Ontario, it makes all the more sense that U of T should leverage its alternative sources of funding toward compensating its contract staff. Even U of T, which consistently boasts a perfect credit score and strong financial status, has struggled to stretch its budget to cover its operating expenses. 

Funding from the provincial government goes directly towards U of T’s operating budget, which in turn is how the university pays its staff. Over the years, we’ve seen the university grow increasingly worried in response to the province’s funding cuts, while other Ontario universities have declared insolvency or warned of imminent bankruptcy. It is extremely worrying to see workers bearing the brunt of this.

After all, it is these academic workers who will one day be prized researchers, educators, and leaders advancing their field of study. From where we as students stand, though, the prospect of pursuing research and academic work through the university is looking very discouraging right about now. And not because we aren’t interested — but because it just might not be worth living off ramen noodles for the rest of our lives. 

In other words, maintaining U of T’s reputation as a “leading research institution” requires more than just the work that people at the top of the ladder are doing. U of T’s future fundraising campaigns should include compensation for contract workers as one of its objectives. 

This is not just a matter of workers’ rights: we believe CUPE 3902 unit 1’s successful new labour negotiation with the university has given U of T a competitive advantage in attracting high-quality TA candidates. We also believe U of T would be incentivized to bargain in better faith if it considers how its labour practices can work towards its coveted reputation.

U of T, we understand you want to defy gravity. But you must know that the people who can help you do that must be boundless first. As provincial funding dwindles and you start looking to cut costs and find alternate revenue, academic workers must stay on your priority list. Because, otherwise, U of T’s research truly won’t be boundless — once you start pushing the limits of the academic workers that power this institution, everything else will reach a hard limit, too.