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.

In the Spotlight: Allie Rougeot

“We’ve got to do something”: Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter head talks to The Varsity

In the Spotlight: Allie Rougeot

In the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit this month, young climate activists from more than 150 countries led a wave of protests on September 20 to call for action on the climate crisis. Fridays for Future, a youth climate movement started by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is leading the global strike which is set to last for a week, until September 27.

Allie Rougeot, a third-year economics and public policy student at U of T, is the head of Fridays for Future’s Toronto chapter. She sat down with The Varsity to talk about her climate activism, U of T’s role in addressing the climate crisis, and starting a small revolution.

Growing up as an activist

Reflecting on the run-up to the establishment of the Toronto chapter of Fridays for Future, Rougeot said, “I started seeing in Europe what they were doing… and I thought: ‘This is great, I can be super French and start striking as well.’”

Rougeot’s activism career started when she was 10 years old. Growing up in the south of France, Rougeot was a fierce advocate for wildlife protection and biodiversity laws. She gave presentations and asked her teachers to put up posters; “I was that kid,” Rougeot joked.

Climate activism was a natural next step from her early environmental work and interest in human rights, which developed as the Syrian refugee crisis reached France in 2015. Though her activism remained in the confines of her high school, Rougeot focused her efforts on the climate crisis as its impacts became clearer.

The pressure to act mounted month by month during Rougeot’s time at the Victoria University’s Students Administrative Council Sustainability Commission in her first year: “Every month that passed by, we were closer to… those targets that we weren’t hitting, in terms of emission reduction.” When the Progressive Conservatives won a majority government in Queen’s Park in 2018, led by Doug Ford — a staunch critic of climate policies, whose government has cut environmental protections — Rougeot decided: “We need a systematic approach to this.”

Where are all the students?

Protests in Queen’s Park have become a monthly occurrence for Rougeot, as she continues to push for action from the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, as well as the university. Despite her efforts, Rougeot says that climate activism from U of T students is lacking. Younger children and teenagers are more vocal and present at her Fridays for Future rallies than university students. “This school doesn’t feel like it’s resisting at all.”

But there has been a slow shift, with more students asking questions and wanting to be involved in her work.

“I think it’s mostly [that] U of T putting so much stress on us academically, that we don’t have the space to [engage in climate activism]. Part of it is cultural. Part of it is [that]… a lot of people are international students, so either they don’t feel as connected to the issues here, or they’re scared to protest.”

“This school doesn’t feel like it’s resisting at all.”

Rougeot also expressed her outrage over U of T’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry following President Meric Gertler’s rejection of his own divestment advisory committee’s recommendations in 2016.

“It’s our school preparing us for our future and, yet, contributing to the destruction of that future. So, really, it intuitively makes no sense.”

To Rougeot, the university not only fails in investing in the future of students, but also in preparing them to enact the big structural changes that are required to address the climate crisis.

Can the system change?

Rouget credits her parents, who both studied economics, for her original skepticism of a revolutionary, rather than transitional, approach to climate change. But, as commitments to emission targets were missed and anxiety around the climate crisis intensified, she became increasingly supportive of a revolutionary path.

“We have to be… realistic on what can actually save us… we really have to do a 180 [degree turn] at this point.”

“I mean, coming from France, I’m surprised how [Canadians], in general, [are] very trusting of their government… It can be good in so many cases to have trust in your institutions, but in these cases it’s kind of deadly.”

Caught between psychologists who warn of ‘eco-anxiety,’ and Thunberg’s plea for action to the Davos World Economic Forum because “our house is on fire,” Rougeot reflected on how panic, fear, and guilt play into climate justice advocacy. While the urgency of the climate crisis weighs on her shoulders, she still sees both hope and fear as being integral to the conversation on climate.

“So I think it’s like: hope by concrete solutions [and] examples, not hope of  ‘it’s all gonna be okay,’ cause those vain things just make you apathetic.”

But, what does change look like, and who instigates it? To Rougeot, individual action is just as important as structural change: “individuals can also create a systematic change, cause the system, really, is a bunch of individuals.” 

Activism, for the outspoken advocate of climate justice, is essential to bring about change at the local level. “Small acts of revolution,” Rougeot argues, will set in motion systemic change. 

“It’s pretty impossible to imagine [what structural change looks like], but then again…  it might be what it takes.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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. 

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.

St. Mike’s faculty, administration negotiating collective agreement as strike deadline looms

Faculty filed for a no-board in January, triggering a countdown for strike action

St. Mike’s faculty, administration negotiating collective agreement as strike deadline looms

After eight months of negotiations, the University of St. Michael’s College (USMC) faculty and administration are heading back to the bargaining table on February 9 in pursuit of a collective agreement before the February 11 no-board deadline. A strike is imminent after 86 per cent of unit members voted in favour of job action at the college.

A no-board triggers a 17-day timer for an agreement, after which either side can legally take job action, either by striking or locking out. USMC faculty filed for a no-board with the Ontario Ministry of Labour after they were dissatisfied with negotiations during a January 19 meeting between the two sides. University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA)-USMC Chief Negotiator Michael O’Connor said that the faculty filed for the no-board as a way to increase pressure on the administration, which they felt was “not up to speed.”

If a strike should happen, undergraduate students in Book & Media Studies, Medieval Studies, Christianity and Culture, and Celtic Studies would be affected. Graduate students in the Faculty of Theology, and by extension the Toronto School of Theology, would also be affected, along with some services at the John M. Kelly Library.

“We’re hopeful that if the employer comes to the table prepared to bargain and ready with a serious effort to reach an agreement, then an agreement should be possible,” said O’Connor. “We don’t think a strike is necessary; we think it’s avoidable if the college administration is serious about reaching a deal.”

Negotiations have been ongoing since the last collective agreement expired on June 30, 2017. The two sides did not meet until August 8 and 9, after which the administration filed for conciliation to bring in an individual to mediate negotiations. Since then, they have met in September, October, December, and at the January 19 meeting.

USMC Director of Communications Stefan Slovak wrote that the administration will continue to work to secure an agreement.

“We’ve been negotiating in good faith for many months to reach an agreement with our colleagues who are members of UTFA,” reads a statement to The Varsity from USMC President David Mulroney. “We’ve tabled a comprehensive offer that tracks closely with the agreement that UTFA reached with the University of Toronto some months ago, that respects our autonomy as an institution, and that contributes to the long-term viability of our university and the community it sustains.”

Faculty and administration are at odds on four key issues, according to O’Connor. The first is greater job security. The administration has proposed a new category of limited-term contract faculty at the college. The faculty, however, believes this is “precarious employment,” and it does not motivate participation in college life.

The second is that the administration is asking for a one-year agreement, which O’Connor attributes to changes facing the college with Mulroney’s exit. This means that a new agreement would be backdated to July 1, 2017 and would send the two sides back to negotiations next summer.

“To drag things on for eight months in a way that’s felt just very frustrating, and then say we want to do this right away again just seems impractical and unreasonable to us,” said O’Connor. “So we’re looking for a multi-year agreement that would give us much more stability.”

Third, faculty are also asking for “equity and diversity in hiring,” requesting that those on hiring committees receive training and that language in USMC job ads mirror U of T’s.

Fourth, they are requesting compensation that mirrors the one per cent plus the $1,150 lump sum that U of T faculty received last June.

O’Connor said that the administration has rejected all of these proposals.

Editor’s Note (February 5): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the lump sum that U of T faculty received last June was $11.50. It was actually $1,150. 

No end in sight for Centennial, Sheridan faculty strike

Students in joint programs at UTM, UTSC still affected

No end in sight for Centennial, Sheridan faculty strike

According to a bulletin posted on the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) website, Ontario college students, including those in joint programs with Centennial College at UTSC and with Sheridan College at UTM, are “in real danger of losing their semester” due to the ongoing faculty strike. The bulletin further alleges that although colleges are trying to reassure students they have a plan, faculty have not seen it.

The OPSEU strike, which began on October 16, has seen full-time and partial load staff on protest indefinitely as bargaining teams from 24 colleges across Ontario work to renegotiate a collective agreement with the union.

The strike at Sheridan affects about 1,000 students out of approximately 14,000 at UTM, while less than half of the 170 students enrolled in joint programs at UTSC and Centennial are affected.

The bulletin says that some colleges have “casually mentioned” that students may only have to complete 80 per cent of their course requirements.

“Students do not pay 100 per cent tuition to receive 80 per cent of the learning,” continues the bulletin. “Faculty are passionate about what we teach, and passionate about making sure students succeed.”

According to Amrita Daniere, the Vice-Principal Academic and Dean at UTM, the administration cannot provide support to students beyond communication, updates, and refer them to support systems.

“We’re not playing any active role in dealing with any of the Sheridan courses, in any of the Sheridan issues. We’re not allowed to, and we would never dream of it,” said Daniere. “The process has to play out and that’s basically our approach […] in terms of the messaging we’re giving our students and the support we are providing our students.”

“Can you imagine if you’re a first year student and it’s your first semester and half of your program is taught at a campus where the professors aren’t teaching? It could be very stressful,” continued Daniere. “So we refer them to counselling, we refer them to the registrar’s office, the chairs are doing everything they can to be a presence and to reassure them.”

Daniere added that UTM does not receive any additional information about the progress of negotiations between OPSEU and the colleges. “No more than what you could pick up on the web or in the newspaper,” she said.

Representatives from UTSC did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment as of press time.