Why do we strike and what happens next?

A month after the Global Climate Strike, a U of T student reflects on the place and power of mass non-cooperation

Why do we strike and what happens next?

It was still dark when I arrived at Queen’s Park to set up for the Global Climate Strike, the sun rising from behind the tall shapes of the Financial District in the distance. At 6:00 am, the stage crew was just beginning to unload, but already a steady line of media vans had filled up the Queen’s Park side lot.

Hours before people from all corners of the GTA would stream onto the park lawns with their signs demanding climate justice for all, journalists and organizers like myself stood in the cold morning air, waiting to see the story of September 27 unfold before us.

To pull a term from the organizing theory of Mark and Paul Engler, the Global Climate Strike on September 27 represented “a moment of the whirlwind.” The whirlwind can be described as any instance of mass non-cooperation which draws participation from all corners and all walks of life, building an irresistible wave of momentum that everyday citizens are compelled to join.

Such whirlwinds are the driving force behind mass disruptions of institutional power. To name some well-known examples: the moment of the whirlwind was a key trigger for the collective breaking-down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the explosion of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, and, more recently, the flood of protests during the women’s marches in 2017.

Put into context alongside past whirlwind moments, it is easy to understand the considerable weight of a 50,000-strong Climate Strike in Toronto, even though the city does not have a notable history of mass protests.

Looking back at the strike nearly a month later, I remember my early-morning anticipation at Queen’s Park, and my initial uncertainty regarding whether we’d have even 10,000 people show up — it is crucial that we remember the strike as an extraordinary social moment for climate justice.

Criticism and interrogation have their own place looking back, but using critique as a tool to promote cynicism and disillusionment about the power of social movements is not helpful or useful.

Cynicism does not win social goods.

That kind of criticism does not win a liveable planet, Indigenous sovereignty, or status for all. The criticism that social movements need should focus on the movement’s ability to put Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities at the front, to interrogate and unsettle white power within movements, to confront and improve the movement’s inclusion, and improve access to ensure no community is left behind. This criticism is not just useful, it is necessary.

Let us look back at the strike and imagine how we can continue to improve our social movements, and not look back and suggest that the 50,000 bodies on the streets of Toronto were just an Instagram opportunity.

50,000 is a movement. 50,000 is a whirlwind.

The power of a social movement is measured through its ability to retain members of the public and install them into the fabric of the movement in the weeks, months, and years to come, following the moment of the whirlwind.

Although the moment of the whirlwind is critical in launching mass protest, it is the work of building relationships which allows any mass movement to achieve its goal.

The youth groups which backed the strike, like Climate Justice Toronto or Fridays For Future, are plugging young people across the country into the fight for a liveable planet and you can join us.

In other words: if you left the Climate Strike feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned, you can find power and bravery by diving into the work that is being done on the ground in solidarity with frontline communities targeted by the climate crisis.

Disclosure: Grace King was a Climate Justice Toronto organizer during the climate march.

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.

Labour groups request meeting with Gertler to discuss changes to postsecondary funding

Joint letter calls on Gertler to help counter “threats to learning and employment”

Labour groups request meeting with Gertler to discuss changes to postsecondary funding

Five Toronto labour organizations which collectively represent 21,208 staff and faculty at U of T penned a joint letter to President Meric Gertler on May 8 requesting to meet for a discussion on the Ford government’s recent changes to postsecondary funding.  

CUPE 1230, CUPE 3261, CUPE 3902, the United Steelworkers Local 1998, and the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) wrote to Gertler and the university’s three Vice-Presidents to express their dismay at what they call “the provincial government’s threats to learning and employment at the University of Toronto.”

The labour groups had numerous concerns, including how the provincial government’s decision to cut domestic tuition by 10 per cent comes “after years of underfunding universities.” They also criticized the government’s move to slash $670 million from student assistance programs.

The groups were also “deeply concerned” about the decision to render some ancillary fees as optional — allowing students to opt-out of “non-essential” student services and to increase the proportion of “performance-based” funding for Ontario universities from 1.4 per cent in 2018–19 to 60 per cent by 2024–25.

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University will see revenues drop, possible changes to hiring plans

After accounting for Ford’s policies, U of T’s Planning & Budget Committee projected an $88 million revenue reduction for 2019–2020 and a loss of $65 million in 2018–2019.

According to the budget report, the cuts will mean “some combination of changes to faculty and staff hiring plans, deferral of capital projects, service reductions, and operating cost efficiencies.”

P.C. Choo is both the Vice-President of the United Steelworkers Local 1998 and an administrative governor on Governing Council. He told The Varsity that in his capacity as a governor, he does not believe that the university “will be forced to cut salaries.” However, Choo continued, “whether the University will be forced to cut jobs remains very much an open question.”

UTFA President Cynthia Messenger is equally unsure of what’s to come. Messenger told The Varsity in an email that if Gertler would be willing to meet with UTFA and the other unions, she would hope to “discuss ways in which together we could protest the Ford government’s attacks on universities.”

Despite the heightened rhetoric the labour groups employed at times toward the Progressive Conservative government, Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, defended the government’s plans.

Tanya Blazina, Fullerton’s media relation representative, told The Varsity that the changes the government is putting forward are “modern, forward thinking, and will lead to good jobs.”

Tying funding to “student and economic outcomes” reflects the government’s priority of making Ontario “Open for Business”, Blazina wrote, while restoring sustainability to the province’s postsecondary sector.

Blazina is referring to the government’s plan to base provincial funding for universities on how well the schools are performing on a number of metrics, as opposed to enrolment numbers. This decision was also criticized by the unions in their letter.

In an email to The Varsity, university spokesperson Elizabeth Church writes that the university is responding directly to the writers of the letter.

“We know how hard our students and their families work to get a university education,” writes Church. “We remain firm in our long-standing access guarantee – financial circumstances will not stand in the way of a qualified student entering or completing a degree.”

Campus Police labour union continues negotiations with U of T administration

Collective agreement expired almost a year ago, will stay in effect until new agreement signed

Campus Police labour union continues negotiations with U of T administration

The union representing U of T Campus Police, Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 519, is bargaining for a renewed agreement with the university since the last one expired on June 30, 2017. However, the expired agreement will continue to be in effect until either a new agreement is signed or conciliation proceedings have been completed. Bargaining began on March 30, 2018 to replace the old agreement, which was last struck on July 1, 2013. No updates regarding the process have been made available on the university’s website as of December 14, 2017.

The Varsity spoke with Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s Vice-President Human Resources and Equity, regarding future bargaining between the union and the university.

“As always, our goal is to have productive and constructive rounds of bargaining to reach a collective agreement,” said Hannah-Moffat in an email. “The University and the Union have had three bargaining dates so far and are scheduled to meet again on May 31, 2018.”

The union’s collective agreement outlines union representation, labour relations, and employee benefits. Article 1 of the old agreement stated, “The Employer recognizes the Union as the exclusive collective bargaining agent with respect to all matters properly arising under the terms of this Agreement for all constables, security officers and security guards employed by the University of Toronto, save and except Sergeants, persons above the rank of Sergeant and persons currently covered by any other bargaining unit.”

Most notably, Article 5.01 of the expired agreement covers the event of a strike amongst employees and the labour union: “The Union agrees and undertakes that there will be no strikes, as defined in the Labour Relations Act and the Employer agrees and undertakes that there will be no lockout as defined in the Labour Relations Act during the term of this Agreement.”

Campus Police has three stations located on the St. George, Scarborough, and Mississauga campuses. It protects the safety of roughly 80,000 students, faculty, and staff across three campuses.

Editor’s Note (June 1): This article has been updated to clarify that the expired collective agreement will stay in effect until either a new agreement is signed or conciliation proceedings have been completed.

From the seams of student activism

Students Against Sweatshops’ legacy continues

From the seams of student activism

Students gathered at the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) recent Special General Meeting-turned townhall  to discuss a motion for ethical divestment. Over 15 years ago, students fought to end the sale of unethical products at U of T.

Establishing ethical guidelines

In 2000, U of T’s Students Against Sweatshops (SAS) successfully lobbied the university’s Governing Council to pass a code of conduct for U of T’s clothing suppliers. To this day, Trademark Licensing, a program at U of T, aims to ensure the university’s marks are ethical and of high quality.

U of T  has an intensive vetting process that companies, called “licensees,” must go through before they can produce goods and apparel with U of T’s logo or marks on them.

In an open letter to president Prichard published in The Varsity in 2000, SAS admonished the university for its indecisiveness.

“We were surprised to learn of your recent hesitation in adopting a code of conduct with provisions for a living wage. After the forum hosted by the University on 31 January 2000, we thought it would be clear that a new code without such language is ‘behind the times’”, the letter stated.

In another article published in The Varsity, SAS organizer Ian Thomson, emphasized what students were hoping for in the code of conduct.

“We demand that they tell us in which factories U of T clothes are being made,” said Thomson. “No more secrets! The code demands that the factory location must be made public.”

SAS bargained with the university for over a year, and after a decision was pushed back one too many times,  17 students held a ten-day sit-in at then president Prichard’s office. Since the code of conduct was passed, U of T has been a leader in ethical sourcing among Canadian universities.

Anne Macdonald, director of ancillary services at U of T, pointed out that post-secondary institutions in the United States began similar programs before U of T, but that U of T was the first to do so in Canada.

“It’s not just that we started doing it first, it’s also that other schools have contacted us and asked about having programs similar to this across Canada,” Macdonald said. “That’s a positive thing, if other schools see that were doing something good and they want information about how to implement something similar, that just helps to raise awareness about apparel manufacturing.”

Current policies and remaining problems

Today, U of T works with Learfield Licensing, a licensing agent that checks U of T’s licensing companies, as well as two NGOs to ensure the ethical production of its branded clothing.

The Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) works with businesses and corporations, while the Fair Labour Association (FLA) has on the ground employees that take in direct reports from factory workers.

“[Licensees] sign an agreement with our licensing agent, but effectively they sign an agreement with the university that they will abide by our code of conduct and that they share information with us at that time about where they manufacture, factory names and so on,” Macdonald said. “They sign off on that and they renew that agreement every year. Then they are permitted to produce U of T merchandise.”

The current agreement licences require companies to disclose to U of T where their products are manufactured. However, loopholes can still be found due to the complicated nature of supply chains. U of T has agreements with their licensees, but the licensees have their own suppliers.

For example, an unethical source could sell blank products to a licensee, which could then responsibly use those products at their own businesses.

“What we can do in that instance is we can urge the company that we have a written agreement with to procure responsibly,” Macdonald said. “If we have reason to be concerned about the activities of a supplier of our supplier, if you will, we still do have recourse… We could raise concerns and we could apply pressure to the company that we have an existing written agreement with, to investigate the concern with that and the manufacturer.”

For products without the U of T logo, the Bookstore has more leeway, and suppliers do not necessarily have to follow the same code of conduct. However, in an emailed statement to The Varsity, the Bookstore said, “The Bookstore [uses] the same sources for those items for the ease of purchase.”

For the most part, U of T receives reports from the WRC and FLA about areas of concern and then Trademark Licensing will investigate further to see if any of the licensees are involved.

“Typically what we would do is if we heard there was a factory of concern or a region of concern is talk to our licensees and work with our licensees and engage them,” Macdonald said. “If they are actively involved in doing something wrong, obviously the very end part of the process would be that we would stop doing business with them, but the real goal for them is to change what they do to ensure that if they are in fact engaged in these countries and there are conditions in the workplace which are substandard and not according to our code of conduct, our goal would be to try to get them to change that. Not to just cease doing business with them, our goal would be to try and influence how they operate.”

The current policies allow for dialogue, but some students do not think this is enough. As various groups on campus call for divestment from other investments at the university, students  remain critical about where their fees are going.