Teaching assistants, administration reach tentative agreement

Agreement must be ratified at ascension meeting to avoid possibility of strike

Teaching assistants, administration reach tentative agreement

Following more than five months of negotiations, on February 8, the bargaining team of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902, Unit 1 reached a tentative agreement with U of T, two weeks ahead of the strike deadline of February 26.

To avoid the possibility of a strike, the tentative agreement will have to be ratified by the union membership. An ascension meeting will be held today, Monday, February 12, at 6:30 pm in Convocation Hall. The bargaining team will present the agreement and recommend it to the unit’s membership. They will also field questions, host a discussion, and vote on whether or not to send the document to a unit-wide ratification vote.

If the vote at the ascension meeting fails, the unit will return to the bargaining table with the same strike deadline of February 26. If it passes, voting stations for ratification will be available across all three campuses until February 16. If the full ratification vote fails, negotiations will resume with the university again.

CUPE 3902, Unit 1 represents more than 7,000 academic employees across the university who work as teaching assistants, student and postdoctoral course instructors, and exam invigilators at all three campuses.

Graduate funding was at the centre of negotiations. The unit’s bargaining team was seeking a roughly 25 per cent increase in the minimum graduate funding package, from the current $15,000 to $20,000 over the next two years, ending in 2020. Other issues included improved equity, health care, support for unfunded unit members, and working conditions.

The details of the tentative agreement are not currently available to non-union members.

Days before the tentative agreement was reached, the union held a strike countdown rally outside Simcoe Hall in support of the bargaining team on the last day of conciliation with a provincially appointed conciliator. The event drew more than 250 people, many of whom were waving flags, holding signs, and chanting, “Hey, hey, U of T, we won’t go quietly!”

“We’re confident the rally had a significant effect,” commented Aleks Ivovic, Chief Spokesperson for the unit’s bargaining team. “It wasn’t until after the rally that we made our most significant gains.”

Academic workers firmly backed their bargaining team at the rally. “This is very important. We have to show our support and solidarity for this cause,” said Chris Chung, a Teaching Assistant in the Department of History. “There are a lot of issues that are long-standing, and we have to go out and show our support in order to effect any change.”

“The union was guided from the beginning and at all times by the priorities set by the membership,” said Ivovic. “We have made significant gains in these areas and we are proud to present the agreement to our members.”

The university voiced support for the agreement. “We are pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with CUPE 3902, Unit 1,” said Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T Vice-President of Human Resources and Equity. “We encourage Unit 1 employees to get out and vote on it and be part of this process.”

—With files from Kathryn Mannie.

Back to work, but for how long?

While it facilitated students’ return to classrooms, the Ontario government’s response to the college strike was an unsatisfactory approach to resolving the labour dispute

Back to work, but for how long?

The five-week-long college faculty strike, which brought over 12,000 workers to the picket lines, has come to an abrupt end after just over a month of grueling standstill. On October 16, employees from 24 colleges, collectively represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), went on strike to fight for at least 50 per cent of faculty members to work full-time and to improve job security. The College Employer Council, which bargains on behalf of the college administrations, said that OPSEU’s demands would cost $250 million, which would result in thousands of lost contract positions. As a result, both sides dug their feet into the sand, refusing to come to an agreement.

What ultimately broke the tension was the Ontario government’s decision to swoop in with back-to-work legislation — thereby sending both workers and students back to the classroom. Although this undoubtedly came as a relief to many students previously left in limbo, we cannot in good faith praise the province’s actions without critically examining their consequences. The fact is that the conflict between college administrations and faculty is far from resolved, and the invocation of back-to-work legislation was but a band-aid solution to the underlying struggles that pushed employees to the picket lines in the first place.

It is true that, in stopping the strike, the province has at least temporarily alleviated the concerns of the many students who suffered substantially as a result of missing classes. While college administrations and faculty played tug-of-war, half a million students across the province had their educations abruptly suspended or halted altogether. Over 1,000 students at UTM and UTSC have also been affected, given the joint programs the university hosts in conjunction with colleges in the Greater Toronto Area.

While it is encouraging that the province plans to provide students with compensation for the coursework they missed, there is no tangible way to turn back the clock. A recent press release by the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario outlined the dilemma students now face: either call it a wash and bear the temporal and financial burden of a lost semester, or try to cram five weeks worth of course material into the little time that remains before end of session. Some colleges have suggested that classes will extend into winter break, ridding students of time that might otherwise have been spent with family and friends over the holidays.

International students were put in a particularly vulnerable position in this regard, given that their very ability to remain in Canada is often contingent on their ability to continue their studies. The strike’s indeterminate end time resulted in a scramble to extend study permits, which likely resulted in substantial stress for many students. Now, though other students have the option of taking time off to re-evaluate, some international students will be forced to remain enrolled in order to maintain their immigration status. This is on top of the financial costs associated with having to stay longer than necessary in a foreign country.

There is therefore a clear need to prevent the negative repercussions of strikes on students and other affected parties, as opposed to merely trying to remedy them after the fact. What this requires is long-term, sustainable support for workers, as well as meaningful negotiation mechanisms. By abruptly bringing an end to the conflict, Ontario has merely postponed its resolution.

Strikes are actions of last resort that result from logjam in the collective bargaining process. When workers have exhausted other options, taking to the picket lines may be the only reasonable way to push administrations to step up to the plate. In this case, it is reasonable to assume that the tensions that brought faculty to the point of no return will come to a head again in the future.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Local 3902 Unit 1, which represents teaching assistants among others at U of T, went on strike in 2015. The dispute’s ultimate conclusion was unsatisfactory for many people. In a move that some workers felt was inadequate, the union voted to stop striking and enter binding arbitration — a process that ultimately favoured the administration. Meanwhile, the underlying issues that culminated in the strike were left to fester until partially addressed in 2016, when the university eventually acquiesced to some of the union’s demands. Today, negotiations are ongoing between the administration and Unit 1, along with Unit 3, which represents sessional lecturers and other academic instructors and assistants. Unit 3 recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate, citing familiar concerns about precarious job security and lack of paths to permanent employment, though a tentative agreement with the administration has now been reached.

The fact that the Ontario government ultimately sent students back to school also does not absolve it of its share of the blame for ongoing problems between administrations and workers. Despite the government’s recent labour law reforms, as reported by CBC Newsabout 80 per cent of college faculty members are part-time workers, and colleges and universities continue to rely on part-time staff. The province has yet to put forth any substantial remedies to the precarious conditions often associated with this type of employment — conditions in which contract workers are being paid less than their full-time colleagues and have far fewer benefits.

It might also be argued that the province’s ability to invoke such measures comes at the expense of ensuring labour negotiations are as meaningful and genuine as possible. While both OPSEU and the colleges are responsible for ensuring staff have adequate working conditions, college administrations are the ones that directly collect fees from students, meaning they bear the additional responsibility of ensuring their educations are not unduly disrupted. With the cloud of back-to-work legislation hanging over their heads, college administrations are not given enough incentive to bargain in good faith with their faculty, putting workers at a clear disadvantage in the process.

It’s a good thing that students are back in class — but considering the strategy taken to get them there, the ends don’t justify the means. Negotiations between administration and faculty must continue in the spirit of securing a long-term, sustainable solution to this conflict. The province also has a responsibility to create conditions that are conducive to meaningful negotiation instead of waiting until the eleventh hour to take action.

Meanwhile, it would serve the U of T administration well to revisit its responsibilities to students and employees alike. Hopefully what happened with the college strike has not set precedent for how labour negotiations will be resolved in the future, particularly in the event that another strike threatens to break out at the university.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

CUPE 3902 advises members to not go into Medical Sciences Building

Union alleges “major violations of legislation”

CUPE 3902 advises members to not go into Medical Sciences Building

CUPE 3902, the union representing sessional lecturers and teaching assistants at U of T, is advising its members to avoid going into the Medical Sciences Building in wake of asbestos-containing dust having been found.

Last week, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine sent an email to students, informing them that a lab on the sixth floor was closed after asbestos-containing dust appeared during construction for the Lab Innovation for Toronto renovations.

According to an email CUPE 3902 sent to its members, the university did not previously know that there was also asbestos in the paint on the walls, or which walls and how many walls are covered with asbestos-containing paint.

It also claims to have received concerns that the air tests “may not have fully compliant with OHSA and other statutory health and safety obligations, and the Union is still investigating these concerns.”

The union alleges that there were “major violations of legislation.” This includes, the union claims, hiring an “incompetent contractor to handle asbestos, failing to notify employees, and failing to work with the Joint Health and Safety Committees.

“The Union will pursue these violations,” the email reads. “If you are not receiving messages from the Employer about this situation, please let us know.”

In addition, CUPE 3902 disputes U of T’s claim that the dust poses no health risk. “That is not the information the Union has received from our own Health and Safety representatives from the CUPE national office. The information we have received is that the dust can easily become attached to skin, hair and clothing, and that pressure as light as a fingernail’s pressure can release the asbestos fibers from the dust,” the email continues.

The union says that it will “fully support” members who choose not to go to work at the Medical Sciences builing and is urging anyone who has been in the building since November to fill out a Worker’s Exposure Incident Form.

CUPE 3902 is holding an information session on March 27 at UC 244.

The Varsity
has reached out to U of T for comment. This story is developing, more to follow.

U of T and CUPE 3902 reach legal settlement

Settlement includes $17,000 in guaranteed funding

U of T and CUPE 3902 reach legal settlement

The legal dispute between CUPE 3902 and the University of Toronto has come to an end. CUPE 3902, which represents over 6,000 teaching assistants and other academic staff, has agreed to a final settlement.

The union has also withdrawn the grievance it filed with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. In a previous press release, the union accused the university of “bargaining in bad faith” during last year’s negotiations.

“The settlement is still not perfect and is not everything people went on strike for,” said Ryan Culpepper, chair of CUPE 3902. “But I am satisfied that the settlement is the best possible end to this legal dispute and for our members, given that U of T lied and bargained in bad faith.”

“The University and the union settled because they were able to resolve their differences and reach an agreement that’s in the best interests of both CUPE 3902 members and the broader university community,” said Erin Lemon, Executive Director of News & Media.

The details

The university will be putting an additional $1 million into the Graduate Students Bursary Fund (GSBF), on top of the three annual payments of $1.045 million that were already part of the collective bargaining agreement, which brings guaranteed minimum level of funding up from $15,000 to $17,000.

“It’s not new money,” explained Lemon, “but the anticipated surplus from another fund… which was also part of the agreement negotiated last spring.”

According to Culpepper, U of T will now be annually providing per student funding data that satisfies the union’s requirements. “It is correct to say that we now have enough data and accurate data,” says Culpepper. He called it “a major component of the settlement” and explained that the additional $1 million being transferred into the GSBF is based on calculations made using this data.

The accusation that the university had provided “inaccurate and misleading” information on per student funding that was used to “cost and craft” the final agreement awarded in arbitration was central to the union’s grievance before the labour board.

U of T’s press release makes no mention of this data.

According to Lemon, “The data set that the University provided to the union in September 2015 was consistent with what the collective agreement required.” Lemon explained that within the last few weeks, the university agreed to provide “a breakdown of that data into additional categories to help the union move forward on distributing the funds to eligible students.”

A lack of trust

The legal dispute began after CUPE 3902 Unit 1’s 28-day legal strike in March 2015, when the university and the union agreed to enter into  binding arbitration.

The union requested the minimum level of funding provided for teaching assistants be raised from $15,000 to $17,500. In June 2015, the arbiter ruled in favour of the university.

In September 2017, the union and university will begin the bargaining process over their next contract.

“I think the round will go well only if the Parties are willing to do a lot more work bargaining face to face (rather than through a mediator) and are willing to put everything they’re agreeing to clearly in writing,” said Culpepper. “There is very little trust on this end.”

CUPE 3902 protests on anniversary of 2015 TA strike

Union alleges U of T has not made good on its deal

CUPE 3902 protests on anniversary of 2015 TA strike

Exactly one year after the beginning of the University of Toronto teaching assistants’ (TA) strike, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902 demonstrated at King’s College Circle. The protest on February 25, 2016 was intended to remind the administration of the conflict, which the union maintains will remain unresolved until bursary funding is distributed. 

In a handout prepared for the Governing Council, CUPE 3902 stated that they “demand their representatives in negotiations with CUPE act immediately to resolve the complaint and pay CUPE the damages to which it is entitled.” The Governing Council is the highest governing body at the University of Toronto.

Evan Miller, external liaison officer of CUPE 3902, and Robert Fajber organized the protest. “[The] goal of this rally was to apply pressure to the university and get all of the governors aware of the issue, since technically our contract is between the entire council and the union (even though only a few people actually negotiate the contract),” said Fajber.

“The administration provided faulty data to the Union around our graduate student members’ funding during last year’s strike, data which included all income rather than just funding, including income sources such as travel grants or casual employment (for instance, a summer job at the library or the bookstore),” said Miller. He said that the effect of the university’s error is to “claw back our members’ wages.”

“If the union were to distribute the money according to the employer’s data, as they are insisting, we would be complicit in what is tantamount to wage theft against our own members,” Miller added.

CUPE 3902 represents TAs, sessional lecturers, and postdoctoral fellows of U of T. Unit 1 of CUPE 3902, which represents around 6,000 TAs, went on strike last year for approximately one month. The strike resulted in the cancellation of numerous labs and tutorials; it ended with an agreement to enter into binding arbitration in late March 2015.

Last year, the union filed an unfair labour practice complaint with U of T, alleging that the university bargained in bad faith during the negotiations for the current collective agreement.

“The admin did not stay true to their word at all!” Fajber said, adding that the university promised them enough funds to raise all students to $17,500. Initially, this figure was part of a deal that the union rejected during the strike and was imposed during binding arbitration after the conclusion of the strike.

Fajber said that CUPE 3902 is not alone in its protest. Workers from four different locals on campus including CUPE 3902, CUPE 3261, Unite 75, and USW 1998 joined in to present a united front, despite protesting different issues.

These groups represent workers in the food service, custodial workers, groundskeepers, and day-to-day administration. Fajber said that shows of support such as this are effective during a labour dispute. He also said that the momentum was good, with a turnout of 60–70 people.

CUPE 3902 is currently in mediation with the university.

The Varsity did not approach the university for comment.