On March 2, around 6,000 teaching assistants and course instructors walked off the job at the University of Toronto. After 14 months with an expired collective bargaining agreement and apparently uninterested negotiating partners in the university's administration, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902 says its bargaining team was handed a deal it didn't like but was forced to approve it anyway.
Given a 15-minute deadline to unanimously approve the deal and hand it over to membership for a general vote (at 3 AM on a Friday, no less) or have the offer taken back, the bargaining team did just that. An overwhelming majority of the membership present rejected the deal, and now TAs and instructors find themselves on the sidewalk rather than in the classroom. (On March 10, the unit of the union representing course instructors reached and ratified an agreement with the university. As of that agreement, graduate students are the remaining group on strike.)
The financials at issue in this dispute are somewhat murky for outsiders. Graduate students are guaranteed $15,000 annually in take-home funding, which comes in part from scholarships and other grants, and in part from teaching assistant contracts. The wage for those contracts is $42 per hour, which would be impressive for a full-time job, but at ten hours per week it's not that much. That's roughly what they're allotted: they're guaranteed 205 hours of work in an eight-month school year to make up the salaried portion of their funding package.
If they manage to find extra work, such as an additional teaching assistant contract, then they earn $42 per hour beyond their funding package. But for the most part, graduate students are expected to live on $15,000 a year, leaving them thousands of dollars below the poverty line, which Statistics Canada placed at $23,298 for a single person in a "census metropolitan area" in 2011. In this case, that area is Toronto, where $1,000 a month gets you a basement apartment that may or may not be fit for a hobbit.
The university did not specifically answer any of VICE's questions either about these numbers nor the negotiations and strike. They did provide a fact sheet claiming that U of T students receive more funding than "comparable Canadian research universities," though there's no mention if students at those other schools are also funded below the poverty line.
What the students want is to live above the poverty line; however, negotiations between the university and the union haven't even gotten to that point. The union decided on a strike-vote deadline of February 27 back in November. When the union rejected the deal, which members Jennifer Gibson and Craig Smith characterized as basically forced onto the membership, the strike was automatic. Speaking to VICE, Smith—the union's outreach coordinator—said repeatedly that what the union wants is for U of T administrators to come to the bargaining table. They seem not to have even reached the point of being able to make demands at the table.
Meanwhile, it's hard to figure out what it is the university wants. Even a week after the union's strike began, the university has not sat down to bargain, preferring instead to say it's "in contact with the provincial mediator regarding CUPE Unit 1." When reached for comment, U of T's media department asked that all questions be sent in advance by email and then sent back a boilerplate response that didn't address any of the specific questions VICE posed.
"Negotiations between the University and the union did not break down; the University and the union reached a tentative agreement," wrote media relations director Althea Blackburn-Evans.
But what of the 14 months prior to the agreement, or the way in which the union says the "tentative agreement" was reached and sent from administration to bargaining team to membership? No answer.
The university shows little sign of backing down, but union members seem unperturbed by that institutional confidence. When VICE spoke to Smith this week, he compared the union's "hundreds of hours of outreach" with undergrads to the administration's tendency to refer to those same students as "basic income units." That term is also used by the Council of Ontario Universities, which may or may not mean anything to the students who have been reduced to dollar amounts.
Gibson, a union member and anthropology PhD candidate, said grad students have put a lot of effort into communicating that their work environment is the undergrads' educational environment, and that problems in one area spill over into the other. TAs and course instructors regularly exceed the amount of time they're allotted and end up working without extra pay in order to properly do their marking or see all the students at their doors.
"I had a contract last semester where I was given 18 minutes per term paper," she said. "These are papers that were 15 pages... and I had 80 of those. And at 18 minutes each, that's barely enough time to read it, skim it, let alone add comments, which we're also expected to do."
While university vice-president and provost Cheryl Regehr recently referred to U of T students (presumably including those on strike) as "some of the very best and brightest in their disciplines," striking grad students are expressing their frustrations with their treatment at the school.
Referring to the university's attitude toward union members, Smith said, "It's inconceivable to us why the university would put the whole of the graduate and undergraduate student body through this strike."
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