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The Breakdown: How will TA finances change this year?

Provincial government changes spell out an uncertain future for teaching assistants

The Breakdown: How will TA finances change this year?

The provincial government has introduced and passed multiple controversial bills this past year that will affect teaching assistants (TAs) at U of T. Notably, changes to tuition and financial aid structuring and a proposed salary increase cap are a cause for concern. 

TAs at U of T are upper-year undergraduate or graduate students who lead tutorials, grade assignments, and supervise labs. All are unionized under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3902. These positions are integral to university classes, and the coming changes have left some with concerns about the long-term impact of the Ford government’s policies.

Tuition and financial aid changes

The Ford government slashed domestic tuition by 10 per cent for all colleges and universities across Ontario for the 2019–2020 academic year — U of T is expected to have an $88 million reduction in revenue compared to the original projections. While TA salaries and hours will likely not be impacted since union agreements guarantee a set of conditions, there is a growing worry about job availability. 

Individual departments at the university will be the ones to determine budgeting decisions, including job postings, based on their priorities.

Because of the inherent precarious nature of TAships, many workers choose to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. In an interview with The Varsity, Jess Taylor, Chair of CUPE 3902, said that “those additional contracts that people kind of need to be able to afford to live [are] what I’m worried about. I’m worried that there will just be fewer jobs posted as departments start to feel the pinch.” 

Further financial strains will be placed on other TAs due to recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. While in previous years independent students, who are eligible for more funding, were defined as those who were out of high school for four or more years, the new guidelines increased the time to six years. This means that a master’s student who entered university right after finishing high school is still considered dependent on their family’s finances. Furthermore, the adjustment of the grant-to-loan ratio will mean that students will receive fewer grants than before.

When asked about possible support avenues for graduate students, Heather Boon, Vice-Provost Faculty & Academic Life, noted that the university “remain[s] committed” to assisting students. U of T plans to spend $247 million on student aid for this academic year, in part thanks to the Boundless campaign, and is also offering financial advising and short-term financial assistance specifically for graduate students.

Public-sector salary increase cap

The provincial government is on track to pass its contentious Bill 124, or the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. The bill, first introduced this past June, would place a one per cent cap on pay raises and inclusive benefits for public sector employees across Ontario, TAs included. 

According to Kendall Smith, a representative from the Treasury Board Secretariat of Ontario, the bill is meant to “manage compensation growth in a way that allows for reasonable wage increases while also respecting taxpayers and the services they rely upon.”

Taylor expressed her concern about the bill passing, noting that it would cause employees to lose money over time since the cap is lower than the usual rate of inflation. 

The collective agreement of Unit 1 of CUPE, which TAs fall under, is set to expire at the end of 2020. If passed, the bill will apply to any new agreement.

York University faculty strike enters second week

Some departments suspend classes in solidarity with CUPE 3903

York University faculty strike enters second week

Contract faculty at York University went on strike on Monday, March 5 after members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 Units 1, 2, and 3 rejected the university’s final collective agreement offer after six months of bargaining.

CUPE 3903 represents approximately 3,700 contract faculty, teaching assistants, and graduate assistants who teach 60 per cent of courses offered at York.

Striking faculty members are demanding equity provisions, prevention of further setbacks in their fellowship funding model, job security, and graduate assistant jobs as part of the new collective agreement.

In solidarity with CUPE 3903, the departments of Social Science; Sociology; Politics; Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies; Cinema and Media Arts; Equity Studies; Anthropology; and Communication Studies, along with the Department of Politics and School of Translation at the York University Glendon campus, have suspended classes for the duration of the strike.

Students have a right to attend class and will be accommodated if they choose not to protest. University facilities, administrative offices, libraries, and food outlets remain open.

More than 800 graduate assistant jobs were previously eliminated during a switch to the current fellowship funding model. Teaching assistants still receive funding in the form of scholarships, fellowships, and research assistantships that advance academic progress, but they have lost other opportunities for work. Contract faculty see fewer full-time opportunities.

At U of T, a separate but related union called CUPE 3902 Unit 3 represents approximately 1,200 sessional instructors. In December, unit members voted to ratify their renewed collective agreement with the school.

Aida Jordao, a sessional lecturer in the Spanish and Portuguese departments at both York and U of T said that at U of T, CUPE 3902 Unit 3 “doesn’t have a lot of power. It also doesn’t have a lot of members.”

“Here at York we can establish a standard by which other universities could measure themselves.”

Jordao said that precarious academic work was harming the quality of education for York students. “Students will always feel it… There won’t be a throughline in their department in terms of curriculum because they will have different professors all the time.”

“I think it’s worse that sometimes we have two weeks’ notice to teach a course… You have to put so much work into preparing the lectures and each class that you don’t have as much time to give to the students.”

Editor’s Note (March 14): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jordao works in the English department. She works in the Spanish and Portuguese departments. 

CUPE Ontario posts open letter template in support of laid-off UTSU staff

CUPE 1281 still trying to get positions restored

CUPE Ontario posts open letter template in support of laid-off UTSU staff


The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario has posted an open letter template on their website calling on the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to reverse its decision to eliminate two full-time staff positions. The letter, released October 20, is addressed to UTSU President Mathias Memmel and UTSU Vice-President Internal Daman Singh and is intended for members of the U of T community to send to the UTSU.

The UTSU’s decision to lay off Clubs and Service Groups Coordinator Vita Carlino and Health and Dental Plan Coordinator Maria Galvez last spring was met with protests and criticism. Critics have argued that the decision was unfair and would negatively impact student services. The UTSU also eliminated the position of Financial Coordinator, which has been unoccupied since August 2016.

“The labour movement will unite to hold the UTSU accountable for these unnecessary and unfair cuts,” reads the letter. “We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and call on you to do the right thing and bring back Vita and Maria.”

Orion Keresztesi, President of CUPE Local 1281, the union representing Carlino and Galvez, called the UTSU’s decision to cut the positions “illegal” and in defiance of the collective agreement CUPE 1281 has with the UTSU.

CUPE 1281 is still working to get the positions restored. Keresztesi said that CUPE 1281 will file grievances against the UTSU, which will be heard by a third-party arbitrator, if Carlino and Galvez are not given back their positions before the arbitration dates. CUPE 1281 and the UTSU are currently in the process of setting the first arbitration date. Keresztesi is “pretty confident that all the positions will be reinstated.”

“Unfortunately, that process is long, and it will be expensive for us and the UTSU,” said Keresztesi, who asked CUPE Ontario to release the open letter in support of Carlino and Galvez.

“I think [the open letter template] is getting the message out that the UTSU has clearly become anti-worker, and from what I’m hearing and seeing, I would even say a right-wing employer,” said Keresztesi. “So I think it’s very important that students and unions and other progressive organizations become aware of the direction that Mathias and Daman are taking the UTSU in.”

The UTSU has defended its decision, arguing that the staff cuts were made because of future financial concerns related, in part, to the development of the Student Commons. A UTSU statement released on May 30, 2017 addressing the elimination of the positions stated that the UTSU would have a “carried-forward deficit of $2 million by 2022” if the three positions were not eliminated, compared to a “carried-forward deficit of $250,000 in 2022” if the positions were eliminated.

The letter template also questions the reputability of Kokobi, the non-profit consulting firm hired by the UTSU to provide a report on the Student Commons project, and it states that “their conclusions are based on many deeply pessimistic assumptions.” The letter also says that “the UTSU’s financial documents indicate the UTSU is not in any immediate financial trouble.”

“We strongly believe, that one worst-case-scenario report cannot justify these drastic staff cuts that have such a negative impact on student services,” reads the letter.

Memmel said the letter’s claim that the UTSU “is not in any immediate financial trouble” is a “lie” and that bankruptcy was and is a “very real possibility.”

“Kokobi had nothing to do with the decision to reduce services,” said Memmel. “CUPE should stop indulging in childish conspiracy theories and start engaging in the grievance process.”

Adrian Kaats, Kokobi’s founder and Operations Director, told The Varsity that the firm “isn’t and has never been involved in UTSU’s HR decisions,” and that their work was limited to the Student Commons.

Memmel and Singh each reported receiving three copies of the letter, which is still available to send, but the changes are not being reconsidered.

“The UTSU exists to serve students; CUPE exists to serve its members,” said Memmel. “We’re not going to accept the subordination of students’ interests to the needs of full-time employees.”

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

Two of seven hunger strikers are U of T cafeteria workers

UNITE HERE hunger strikes during convocation

As graduates celebrated convocation, hunger strikers camped out with tents on the southeast corner of King’s College Circle.

From June 9 to June 15, UNITE HERE Local 75, which represents food services workers on campus employed by Aramark, led a hunger strike to protest the university’s transition to internal food operations.

Inside Convocation Hall, the university handed out flyers to graduates and their families explaining that the commotion outside was due to the conflict over the transition of food service workers from a subcontract with Aramark to employment by the university itself, effective July 1.

Aramark workers have been in conflict with the university since January, when it was announced that the University of Toronto will take over food services at UTSG after its contract expires in July. Issues of guaranteed reemployment, the severity of probationary periods, the continuity of workplace seniority, and the debate over which union should represent the workers surround the transition.

Participating in the hunger strike

There were seven participants in the hunger strike, which included food services workers employed elsewhere and UNITE HERE international organizing director David Sanders, who said he would participate “halfway.”

Two of the participants were food services workers employed at U of T: Maria Goretti Frias, a campus cafeteria worker for over twenty years and Geneve Blackwood, who has worked as a cook at Sid’s Café for 15 years.

Frias told The Varsity before the strike that she was “very nervous, honestly very nervous. It’s going to affect our personal life.”

She continued, “We feel like we are mistreated. We are on probation, and they are taking our seniority over 30 years.”

“We’re trying to get through a point across campus,” said Blackwood. “They’re stripping us of everything and we don’t think that is right. They’re treating us as we’re new workers and we’ve been working for so long. It’s like we’re starting all over again for the same job we’ve been doing for years.”

The 250 Aramark workers have all been re-hired and they will represent the majority of the work force. There is a 90-day probationary period once they start employment under U of T; they will retain their original “date of hire” and receive a new “start date” under CUPE 3261.Protestors in support of UNITE HERE march on campus NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Changing employers, conditions

Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour. They will also receive U of T employee benefits, which include health plans, pension plans, vacation time, tuition waiver for spouses and children, and childcare assistance fund.

“CUPE also negotiated to ensure that the current Aramark employees are covered by the health plan as of day 1 of employment instead of the second month of employment as required by the Collective Agreement,” said CUPE 3261 president Allan James in an email to The Varsity.

“The most immediate issue is probation,” said Sanders. “During probation, you have zero job security, and for any reason at all, your employer can decide that you are not a good fit and therefore you are terminated. It is very normal for people to not make it through probation.”

On top of the concerns he expressed over the probation, Sanders claimed that some of the workers will not retain their jobs.

[pullquote-features]Most hourly wages for workers employed by Aramark at the university range between $12.00 to $12.80. Under the university’s employment, wages will increase to $20.29 an hour.[/pullquote-features]

“The university announced at the very beginning that they expected that only 85 per cent of the people would continue with the university, implying that 15 per cent won’t make it through probation,” he said.

James explained that CUPE 3261 is in negotiations with the university to waive the probationary period. “In my four years as president of CUPE Local 3261, I have not heard of an employee being let go during the probationary period,” he added.

Anne Macdonald, the director of ancillary services, told The Varsity that the university administration remain uncertain about the origin of the 85 per cent retention statistic; the university has issued statements to the contrary.

Macdonald clarified that during the first town hall meeting between the university and the workers, a university top chef mentioned that 85 per cent of the workers would experience no change to their current duties, but that 15 per cent would experience some changes to their job requirements. Most of these changes would centre around workers handling fresh and local food, which was not the case under Aramark’s contract.

“For sure, we did not say that 85 per cent of the staff would retain their jobs and 15 per cent would go,” Macdonald said.

James echoed this sentiment: “We have no idea where anyone is getting this idea. We have directly asked U of T about this rumour and they have categorically denied the idea of only 85% of the employees making it through the probationary period.”

[pullquote-default]“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. ”[/pullquote-default]


At UNITE HERE’s recent rallies, several protesters held signs that read ‘CUPE 3261: Workers should help workers’ and ‘CUPE 3261: Why are you letting U of T hurt us?’

“We fight hard for our workers,” Sanders said. “As far as I can tell, CUPE never fights to protect their members, beyond putting up an online petition. That does not count as fighting as hard as you can to protect the interests of these members.”

Macdonald acknowledged this tense relationship: “I don’t think [relations between the two unions have] been friendly discussions.”

James said, “CUPE Local 3261 has no fight with UNITE HERE Local 75.”

The University of Toronto has a legally-binding agreement with CUPE 3261 for its employees’ collective bargaining. According to Macdonald, if UNITE HERE successfully legally challenged this agreement, that union could assume responsibility for representing the university’s food service workers. Until then, CUPE 3261 will be the sole representative of food services workers on campus.

Re: Protest efforts continue against U of T’s takeover from Aramark

Re: Protest efforts continue against U of T’s takeover from Aramark

Miscommunication around U of T’s decision to contract back in hundreds of foodservice workers is generating a state of fear that should not exist in the face of the facts.

In a time when multi-national corporations continue to lead the charge in driving down wages and creating an economy based on precarious work, we rarely get good news stories and it is important that we recognize them when they happen.

In an effort to provide more local food on campus U of T chose to end its contract with multi-national foodservice provider Aramark and instead bring the work back in house. Much has been said about what this means for the workers and much has been wrong. I would like to set the record straight.

All of the current Aramark workers have been offered jobs without having to re-apply.

As of August 1st, when this transition will occur, these workers will be covered by a CUPE collective agreement already in place for all other foodservice workers directly employed by U of T.

Joining this agreement will result in a significant wage increase; immediate enrolment in the extended health benefit plan; enrolment in the defined benefit pension plan; increased vacation time; and a tuition waiver. These workers will also maintain their seniority within the Aramark list.

We recognize that this is not the perfect situation for Unite Here, which currently represents these workers. They are losing members. We too have been there as a result of mergers in other sectors and we originally lost these members when U of T contracted out the work. But, at the end of the day, what is best for the workers has to be the most important consideration.

We will always stand in solidarity with Unite Here. The work they do on behalf of their members is inspiring. Allowing circumstance to divide us only makes our movement weaker.

Fred Hahn is the President of CUPE Ontario.

CUPE local 3261 petitions against contracting out jobs

Members call for U of T to pay workers living wages

CUPE local 3261 petitions against contracting out jobs

University of Toronto service workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3261 are petitioning for the university to stop contracting out their work. The petition, Stop Contracting Out, was launched after the university transferred cleaning jobs in buildings related to the faculties of law, music, and dentistry to a contract cleaning company.

CUPE 3261 members have a collective agreement with U of T, so they receive benefits that contract workers do not. U of T does require contractors to be unionized. Scott Mabury, vice president of university operations said that none of the university’s unionized caretaking staff would lose their jobs because of the switch to contract workers.

“We also made sure that in moving forward with this agreement that our service provider was well-established and had a good reputation,” Mabury said. “It was also important for the University that these caretaking positions remain unionized. Under the new provider, while some positions fall under [Labourers’ International Union of North America], the majority are under [the Service Employees National Union]. As part of a union these workers will bargain collectively for their terms and conditions of employment.”

Additionally, regular employees have a job rate of $20.21. The new contract workers receive $11.85 per hour for “light duty work” and $13.10 for “heavy duty work.” According to CUPE 3261, this difference is representative of pay equity concerns where men are paid more than women.

“We hope the petition will convince the Employer to terminate its contract with Compass and return to its practice of hiring employees who are paid a living wage, with health and pension benefits,” CUPE servicing representative Leanne MacMillan said. “We think regular U of T employees, who have a permanent connection to the campus can provide the type of cleaning which needs to be done. Folks don’t need to worry about turnover, inadequate health and safety training and loss of privacy when you don’t have regular employees doing the work.”

Under the contract U of T has with CUPE local 3261 members, U of T must provide job protection for workers. Those replaced by contract workers were moved to similar paying vacant positions after retraining if necessary. This comes from gapping positions, which are vacant positions usually filled by casual workers, or not filled at all.

The union acknowledges that U of T is attempting to cut costs but believes there are better ways to do so. According to the petition, the entire payroll of CUPE local 3261’s members is 1.2 per cent of U of T’s net income.

“We don’t think eliminating positions from some of [the] lowest paid workers on campus is a good strategy,” MacMillan said. “We don’t think it actually saves very much money. We don’t know how much U of T is paying Compass. We only know what Compass is paying its employees. We don’t think that reduced cleaning of buildings, offices, classrooms and labs is good for your learning experience as student.”

“We don’t have any issues with the workers who are employed by Compass,” MacMillan said. “However, we think U of T should do the right thing and continue to use full time regular employees to clean on campus.”