by Liam Fox
CUPE 3902 Unit 1 represents more than 6000 teaching assistants, part-time lecturers, lab demonstrators, graders, and invigilators employed at the University of Toronto. In the early hours of February 27th, a tentative agreement between the employer and the union was reached, awaiting a ratification vote from its members. The vote, which took place last Friday afternoon, resulted in a resounding ‘no’.
Regarding this overwhelming vote to strike down the tentative agreement, one TA explained that “while the employer made concessions on a number of fronts, the main issue — the lack of a liveable wage — was hardly addressed.” The strike began immediately, with picket lines forming Monday morning.
Support for the union’s cause has been widely expressed, both on the picket line and in social media. Rachel MacKinnon, a first year PhD student, commented on this remarkable level of solidarity on the picket line near King’s College Circle. “I’ve actually seen other students with bigger funding packages who aren’t even teaching this term coming out for us, and that’s really awesome. So I want to be able to give that back to people.”
As outlined in a previous article, the guaranteed funding package for graduate students at the University of Toronto is $15,000, falling $8,000 below the Toronto poverty line. The central issue in the current strike is to bring the funding package, which has not been increased since 2000, closer to a ‘livable wage’. “None of the demands the union is making strike me as overreach,” said Eric Mathison, a PhD student in philosophy. “Graduate students and sessional instructors help this university operate. Requesting fair, stable employment is reasonable.”
Members also want to remind the public that while they see the strike as necessary, they would still much rather be in the classroom performing their regular duties. “We’re not doing this because we really want to be out here,” MacKinnon said. “We want this to be over as soon as possible.”
There is still little indication as to how long the strike will last. In an email sent out to all students early this morning, the union stated that the University has not yet been in contact. The University did, however, send an email to all students last Friday, warning students of potentially ‘intimidating’ picket lines and to call campus police should they feel unsafe–a peculiar response, which the union called “scare tactics.”
Meanwhile, CUPE 3902 Unit 3, representing non-student academic staff such as sessional lecturers, voted Monday night on whether or not to ratify their tentative agreement. The result was a decision to send the vote to the entire unit across all three UofT campuses. According to one source, the agreement for Unit 3 faculty represents a strong step in ensuring more job security, but very little movement towards wage increases. Unit 3 may choose to reject the offer and strike in solidarity with Unit 1.
A similar labour strike looms further north at York University. CUPE 3903, representing contract faculty and teaching assistants, had also reached a tentative agreement with the employer. According to the union’s website, this agreement was voted down on Monday night, with a ‘no’ vote of nearly 70 per cent. 3903 also welcomes students and the public joining them on the picket lines.