BASICS Speak to CUPE 3902 Representatives about Possible Strike at UofT

by Nathaniel Jote and Liam Fox

The University of Toronto and CUPE 3902, which represents student and contract teaching staff on campus, are currently negotiating new collective bargaining agreements. Negotiations seem to have stalled, however, and Units 1 (mainly TAs) and 3 (mainly sessional lecturers) are readying for a possible strike. At a townhall last Wednesday, BASICS caught up with two union reps.

Erin Black is the Chair of CUPE 3902 and the chief negotiator for Unit 3. Ryan Culpepper is the Vice-Chair for Units 1 & 2 and the chief negotiator for Unit 1.

Interview with Ryan Culpepper and Erin Black, 11 February 2015

BASICS: Is the University stonewalling you guys? I’ve talked to a few Unit 1 members, and it kind of sounds like that.

Ryan Culpepper: I think that’s fair, yeah. I think they’re doing the bare minimum that they can do and not run into trouble with the Ministry of Labour.

BASICS: And why do you think they’re pursuing that tactic?

RC: I don’t know, I mean—

Erin Black: They have claimed, and there is some truth to this, but how much truth is the question, virtually every unionised group on campus is bargaining this year, so they have been trying to kind of prioritise things or schedule things, and there’s only so many of them, uh, so they say. I have some—there is some truth to that, absolutely.

RC: Though they themselves negotiated the terms of the agreement, so like the fact they all expire in the same year is something that they themselves have set up.

EB: And they’ve known that we’ve been coming for three years, and could have, in my humble opinion, prepared for, better than they did, in terms of, ‘I’m sorry, we just don’t have any dates for you, ’cause we have to go talk to, uh, whoever.

RC: But right now they’re not meeting with us and there’s no other unions bargaining, it’s just us and they’re still not meeting with us.

BASICS: So most of the agreements have already been made, for the other unions.

RC: Yeah, the other two biggest are done, Steelworkers and another big CUPE local.

BASICS: So, in terms of [Unit 3] membership, there’s sessional Instructors, like Rank 1, Rank 2, Rank 3?

EB: Yeah we call it sessional lecturer 1, sessional lecturer 2, sessional lecturer 3, or SL 1, 2, 3.

BASICS: So how many people are in Unit 3 of CUPE 3902?

EB: Unit 3 represents approximately a thousand individuals, that’s sessional lecturers, writing instructors, we have some hourly paid employees who are musical professionals, but the bulk of the membership is sessional lecturers.

BASICS: And what percentage of the sessional lecturers would you say are SL1’s?

EB: Oh, the majority.

BASICS: And I think you said there were, 44–

EB: There were exactly 44 who have hit that brass ring of guaranteed work [this refers to SL3’s having guaranteed positions].

BASICS: And do you know how many SL2’s there are?

EB: You know what, if you give me a minute I actually ran these numbers for our bargaining team, if you give me a second.
[Reading from phone]: So there are 440 SL1’s, 120 SL2’s, and, sorry, 45 SL3’s, we have a new one this term.

BASICS: Moving up in the world. And so, the rate at which an SL 1 is paid per course is $7500?

EB: The SL1 is $7,125[per course], the SL2 is going to be…I can’t pull the exact figure out but it’s going to be around $7500, um, and SL3’s would be about $7900.

BASICS: And they are guaranteed four half-courses?

EB: Four, yep.

BASICS: No guarantee for SL2’s, but just preferred hiring.

EB: Just hiring preference.

BASICS: Is there a maximum, I don’t know if you mentioned this earlier, for the maximum number of courses—

EB: That you can teach? No. If you get to SL3 they owe you four; you can apply for work on top of that, and if you get it you can have it; but after 8 years of service, at least 8 years of service to the University, after having taught at essentially that course load, that 2/2 load, that’s how we refer to it, for at least 3 years, and after having been deemed ‘superior’ not once but twice, the university owes you what amounts to a gross salary of around $35 000. After all of the stuff you’ve got to get. And I might add, that commitment was not permanent, we successfully have achieved that in this round of bargaining. It was time-bound to each collective agreement, and in this round of negotiations they have now agreed to make it non-negotiable.

BASICS: Do you have a lot of people who are sessional lecturers for very long periods of time who aren’t moving up?

EB: We do, we have a classification called ‘SL1 Long-Term’, uh, so those people don’t have hiring preference but they get like a hundred bucks extra pay in honour of their at least six years of service to UofT.

BASICS: Do you have any idea how many people are in that category?

EB: That’s actually a small category, ’cause most people do advance, um, I think it’s probably about twenty or so who are at the long-term rank, most advance, but for—the reason some of these people, I’ve asked them, like, ‘you qualify for advancement, why don’t you do it?’ and the most common response I get back is, uh, ‘the process [of teaching review to be able to move up in level] is too intensive for the outcome; I have to go through all of these hoops, for what amounts to just a smidgen more pay, and a hiring preference, which is a good thing, but which may or may not matter because the course may not exist in the future anyhow.

RC: Also increasingly they’re screwing with the advancement process. Like, they’re denying more people advancement, and they’re doing weird things, like just as someone’s about to reach the threshold for an advancement review, they’ll pull their courses—

EB: ‘Oops, we don’t need your course this year!’

RC: —yeah, they’ll pull their courses so that they can’t reach the threshold to be reviewed for advancement.

EB: They’ll tell you that it was just, you know, curricular changes necessitating that.

RC: There’s lovely coincidences out there.

BASICS: Right, ‘changes in the historiography necessitate the end of your course.’
What’s the–do you have a rough idea of how many sessional instructorships there are offered in a year versus the new tenure track positions which would sort of, be offered? What would you say the ratio is?

EB: That’s a bit harder to answer. UofT is a little different than other institutions, so the growth rate of tenure-track positions—there was a study done by the Higher Education Council for Ontario…which investigated a bunch of universities in Ontario. At UofT, which is different than other institutions…there has been greater sessional growth than tenure growth, but UofT has also created a bunch of ‘teaching-stream’ positions, so full-time, permanent benefits, all that sort of stuff, represented by the faculty association, so those guys are higher than us, but less than the tenure-stream. And at other Ontario institutions…who aren’t doing this, it’s basically like, tenure [gesture to show tiny increase], sessional [gesture to show large increase]. But UofT has this weird sort of blip because of these teaching-stream positions that have been created, that are full-time positions; we’re thrilled to see them, [but] our long-serving members often don’t get hired into them; so you’ve created a teaching-stream position, and instead of affording it to the individual who’s been doing that work for five, six, seven, whatnot years, chances are it’s not going to go that person.

BASICS: So, these are full time positions, but they’re not professorships.

EB: Their rank system is ‘lecturer–senior lecturer’, but they are full time positions, they are continuing positions, they come with benefits and pensions and they are represented by the Faculty Association. But because they’re ‘teaching-stream’, they’re not ‘assistant, associate, full professor’, which has a much greater research requirement; so that’s the difference.
And then there’s us: the course-by-course-by-course.

BASICS: What’s the average TAship in terms of hours? How many hours is the average contract?

RC: Probably an average contract would be about 140 hours for a semester or 280 for a year.

EB: I can tell you in my department, for any incoming new student…they work very hard to make sure they do not get over the 205 hours [beyond which T.A.s are paid at the rate of $42.05/hour; under this threshold, their remuneration is considered to be made up by the $15 000 stipend which all PhD students receive]. This year I have two T.A.’s who were brand new students who were each capped at the 205.

BASICS: And that’s why they kind of start having contracts where you don’t have any remuneration for–

RC: Yeah they trim the hours so that they don’t have to pay you the hourly rate. When you get offered a job, you get offered a job that is for a certain number of hours. And then you have to sit down with the supervisor and go through the breakdown of the hours. So that’s where the process happens of saying, ‘you’re going to get so many hours for marking, so many hours for office hours–

EB: So many hours for actual class time.

BASICS: So this may be anecdotal, but in your experience, does it tend to be in situations where they’re trying very hard to make sure that a TA doesn’t get a contract for more than 205 hours, where they tend to have these, sort of, more brutal regimes where you don’t have any time to talk to students, where you don’t have any time to hold office hours, that kind of thing?

RC: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how it is all over the university, I only know in departments where I’ve worked, I’ve seen big trimmings on contact time and prep time. That’s where they’re trimming back hours.

BASICS: And so, because course instructors are salaried, I assume there’s no–I don’t know, do you have an average of how many hours a sessional lecturer will spend working on a course?

EB: We did a survey of our members and asked that question; most said, if you were to add it up, the whole course, from start to finish, creation to delivery and marking and all that, most said that it’s probably at least 250 hours from start to finish. Interesting fun fact: for employment insurance purposes, a course is only credited at 230 hours.
And it really does vary. For instance I mentioned earlier, I teach a fourth-year seminar; because there’s no lecturing in that course, it’s straight up student discussion, and there’s fifteen students, it’s less labour-intensive than a course that I prepare lectures for. And the first time you’re preparing lectures for a course, it probably takes an average of maybe 8–10 hours to write one single lecture; so what gets spoken to the students in 2 hours takes probably 8–10 hours to actually draft. That first year I taught I actually kept track of my hours, and then I divided it by the stipend, and I was making below minimum wage. Because we’re not paid on an hourly basis; we’re paid like, ‘here’s a stipend.’ TA’s get this, Ryan referred to it, this Description of Duties and Allocation that breaks it down, x hours for this, x hours for that. I get a letter that says, ‘Dear Dr. Black, we’re hiring you to teach this, there are 24 hours of lecture in this course and one hour of office hours per week, and you will be paid x,’ which is the stipend, and x includes everything, from creating the syllabus, picking the readings, delivering the lectures, meeting with students, grading the students, or if I have TAs working for me, supervising the TAs—it’s kit and caboodle for them, it’s all part of delivering the course, so it’s one stipend.

BASICS: Can you tell us where the bargaining process is at?

EB: Sure. Both units are in similar spots actually; we’ve both filed for conciliation, which Ryan mentioned, that happened in December, we did it on the same day, that’s the process where you involve the Ministry of Labour. Both teams have now, after a meeting in conciliation, requested what’s called a ‘No Board’ Report, it’s a labour term basically. The upshot of that is when that report is issued, that starts a clock ticking, a 17-day clock, at the end of which puts either the union in a legal strike position or the employer in a legal lockout position. Both Units 1 and 3 have asked for the report that is now ticking down to a legal action on either side. But both have more dates to meet, [to Ryan] you have–

RC: Four.

EB: Four dates scheduled between now and the strike deadline, uh, the ticking clock ending, and we so far have the one additional date that they offered at 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

BASICS: And I guess in your experience, or in the experience of the union, is that–are four dates or one date a realistic amount of time to get an agreement?

That one’s harder to answer, I think what’s more telling is that Unit 1—what have you had now, a total of what, 14—maybe—dates? In the last round of Unit 1 bargaining [during the 2011–2012 school year], well before they even got to conciliation, they had like 25 dates.

RC: We had 18 even before our strike vote last time.

EB: Yeah, and this time there were like 6 or something. So it’s—at the end of things, processes can move or they can stall, that’s sort of amorphous, but—

RC: I mean, they know what it would take to get an agreement, right?

EB: Yes.

RC: They know what it would take to get an agreement, they’ve known since Day 1, so it could take one day, but that’s not the way that they bargain, so I mean, is timing a concern? Yeah, definitely.

BASICS: So, you mentioned the role of the province, the Ministry of Labour mediator, in the process, how helpful has that been? I don’t know what the specifics of that mediator role are.

EB: It’s up to the parties. So, sometimes the conciliator, he’s called a conciliator at this [earlier] stage, although now he’s a mediator, because both of us have filed the No Board Reports, he or she can do different things. Sometimes the parties sit in separate rooms and he or she shuttles back and forth, sometimes the parties meet face to face and the conciliator’s in the room, to sort of hear both sides, so it’s really up to the parties how they do it.

RC: And the Ministry of Labour employs conciliators in the first place for one purpose, which is to prevent strikes. That is their job. Their job is to prevent labour unrest in the province, so they come into the process, to sort of bash both sides on the heads and get them to come to an agreement. And so they go the employer and say, ‘Listen these guys are serious they’re gonna strike, you should be scared, give them what they want,’ and then they come to the union and they’re like, ‘Dudes they’re ready, they’re ready for you they’re gonna squash it you can’t go out you have to take the deal,’ like that’s their job, so you know. I don’t begrudge them for doing that job, but you have to recognise, I guess on both sides, what that is.

BASICS: I guess was just trying to get at—what kind of help from the province can you get, I mean, it doesn’t really sound like much if at all.

RC: I think the conciliator—the conciliators I’ve worked with in the past and our conciliator now, they’re usually quite aggressive, they really try to get you to make movement, draw proposals, that kind of thing. And that’s annoying and you have to develop your own way of dealing with them, but the good part is they also do that to the employer. I have found the ones I’ve worked with to be quite neutral in how they—all they want to do is prevent a strike, so they’ll be aggressive with both parties if it means, you know, getting you to sign a contract, so that is sometimes helpful.

BASICS: I wanted to ask about the solidarity between the two sections of the union: how did that come about, and is that rare, I guess? Do they often work together in collective bargaining? And also, it seems as though the University, if they’re closer to making a deal with Unit 3, then they might—is there a possibility that they would then use that against the TAs? Because it’s a lot harder to do a strike for just the TAs, right?

RC: Yeah.

EB: Well they’re a lot bigger though, I mean, much bigger, 6 000 to 1 000. So I think size takes away that sort of differentiality.

RC: I think it’d be more like, um, sessionals are—I mean, I’m learning from going out to events like this and talking to journalists, and sessionals are a more sympathetic crew; people like sessionals. So that’s great, um, so I think if sessionals [Unit 3] settled before we [Unit 1] did, I think the damage that it would do to us would be more like, ‘well, we always thought you were a bunch of unreasonable, radical students anyway, that nobody could deal with, and look, like the sane people, the people who will listen to reason settled; you’re on just some crazy crusade,’ and you sort of then lose the war of public opinion.

EB: I don’t disagree with Ryan, I think that would be the perception out there; what’s behind the scenes, though, is that for—[the University] are not making movement for Unit 1; they are making movement for Unit 3, and I’m not saying it’s enough—

RC: Oh yeah, fair enough, I think they’re absolutely trying to set themselves up to do exactly that, so that they can take, you know, frankly the more politicised Unit and give them a lot less, by giving some crumbs to the one that looks more sympathetic.

BASICS: But my impression is that Unit 1 is not asking for a lot—you said something like, a raise [to the guaranteed minimum funding package] of a few thousand dollars is not even going to put you above the poverty line—that doesn’t seem like an insane amount to—

RC: I don’t think it’s insane at all, but I think they would like to paint us as entitled, greedy—

EB: And what they’ll focus in on, and this is focused in on by student news coverage at UofT, is the $42.05/hour rate. Which is like, ‘Oh my God, you make that much? What are you complaining about?

RC: I did an interview with the Star today, and like, that’s all, I could not get her off the wage, that’s all she wanted to talk about.

BASICS: What would both of you want to say to people about the positions of your Units of the union?

EB: Well first of all, we are separate units, we have separate agreements, but we’re the same union, to come to your question about solidarity…we are CUPE 3902. So, we’re looking out for each other, to the extent that we can, we brought joint language, um, around common issues, which really freaked them out, ’cause this is the first time we bargained at the same time, normally it’s been one ahead of the other—

BASICS: So this is the first time that’s happened?

EB: Yeah, so that really freaked them out, and Ryan for Unit 1 came to the Unit 3 table, and they’re all like, [miming shock]—

RC: They spent an hour arguing whether I should be there or not.

EB: —it’s like, ‘what’s, what’s going on here?’

RC: They’re very very scared of the idea of collaboration. They said to me at that time, they said like, ‘You are the negotiator for Unit 1, how dare you try to bring that leverage to bear at this table!’ you know, like they are very scared of the idea of [collaboration]. I think the thing that is shared, and I hope it makes everyone equally sympathetic, but I’ll say this definitely about Unit 1 members, like I see, I’m out at info sessions and town halls all the time, and member department meetings, like, people are broke, they’re broke and they’re overworked and they’re exhausted and they’re exasperated, and the reason we are where we are is they feel like they’re out of options. So I think that’s shared with Unit 3.

EB: Oh it’s absolutely shared with Unit 3, equally as broke, equally as stressed. Have you heard of ‘Rhodes scholars’, right, like the impressive scholarship for Oxford, there’s a take on it, ‘Roads scholar’…because sessionals are always on the road so much, working at like a gazillion different campuses… One of our bargaining team members like goes to Peterborough for Trent, to teach. We have people who work on our campus who come in from as far away as London and Kingston and stuff like that. So yes, absolutely, the common ground is that whether you’re a graduate student education worker or somebody who has actually crossed the floor and gotten your PhD, we are similarly in the same economic boat.

BASICS: Living paycheck to paycheck.

EB: While being asked to do an incredibly important job, which is undergraduate education.

BASICS: What can students and the public do to mobilise or show solidarity?

EB: If the university can be told in no unequivocal terms, ‘We’re on their side,’ that’s going to be worrisome in Simcoe Hall.

* * *

You can follow updates from CUPE 3902 on Twitter at @cupe3902 or on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CUPE3902

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