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The University of Toronto has often prided itself on its prestigious status as a leading academic institution. Unfortunately, this does not mean that it has been willing to give its employees job security, decent pay, or healthy work conditions at the university. Teaching assistants, lab instructors, and a number of other academic staff are challenging these conditions of work, a struggle that we, as Fightback, wholeheartedly support.

On the whole, there has been a major shift at the University of Toronto (and other academic institutions) towards expanding teaching and research employment, but setting aside little in the way of funding wages and conditions of academic workers. This has translated into low salary and contract work. This puts many of our instructors, although highly skilled, in some of the more precarious work conditions in our society.

Over 4,200 teaching assistants and other staff at the University of Toronto, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902, have been without a contract since 30th April 2011. Frustrated with the unwillingness of the University of Toronto bosses to concede to the basic demands for wages to be kept up with inflation, for childcare support, to capping the ballooning tutorial sizes, or to end the chipping away at funding, academic workers organized a strike vote. The membership voted 91%, with record turnout, for a strike if the employer refuses to address the issues presented by the union.

 

Funding to education & conditions at the university

There has been a significant cut to the funding for post-secondary education over the last twenty years. Public funding has steadily decreased, leaving a massive gap in the budgets of the different universities. This has resulted in the neglecting of important fields and departments of the academy, and the eroding of standard of living of staff. As corporate funding becomes a larger factor, universities have re-oriented themselves to the market, profit-making, and the labour needs of big business.

Such a neglect of these important institutions is unacceptable at a time when federal and provincial governments are spending billions on military expenditures (such as fighter jets and the occupation of Afghanistan), expanding prisons, and on corporate tax cuts and bailouts.

The result has been a massive decrease in the quality of education. Furthermore, a lack of funding has resulted in massive hikes to tuition fees that hurt working class students. Tuition hikes keep working class youth from accessing education. The declining standard of living of academic staff (many of whom are students) has even pushed many into poverty-line conditions.

Even Maclean’s magazine, not known for being sympathetic to the labour movement, was forced to cover the decline in the quality of education at the University of Toronto through the ballooning size of tutorials and labs. Over 42% of labs and tutorials have over 50 students, with many containing over 100 students. Tutorials are supposed to supplement the impersonal lectures, providing healthy person-to-person discussion and the answering of students’ questions.  How they are supposed to do this now is anybody’s guess.  In fact, since 2006, tutorials with 20 or fewer students have dropped by 50%.

The bosses, and the politicians that serve them, would prefer to drop bombs on Afghanistan and give handouts to the big corporations, than to give good wages and benefits. They would prefer to expand the prison system than to make sure every student could access quality post-secondary education. We stand for free education for all, including living grants and affordable housing for all students. We also demand good wages, linked to increases in cost of living, and job security for all.

 

The UofT bosses refuse to bargain

The University of Toronto administrators, many of whom take home massive six-figure salaries, are unwilling to budge on the basic issues of wages, security, tutorial sizes, and childcare benefits. They are forcing a strike upon the university, and hope that their friends in the corporate-owned press will help demonize the union (much like what occurred during the past strike at York University).

The hypocrisy of an administration that keeps repeating the demand for academic workers (and students) to make sacrifice after sacrifice, citing the economic crisis, is beginning to fall on deaf years. When the University of Toronto president, David Naylor, takes home salary and benefits adding up to $430,048 (in 2009), in addition to a university-paid mansion in the upscale Rosedale neighbourhood, how can you ask workers to make sacrifices? The University of Toronto administration’s complicity with government cuts is displayed by their unwillingness to fight for increased public funding, and instead, leading the charge for privatization and de-regulation of the university.

The response must be to mobilize the union membership and stand strong against the attacks by the employer. Any step backwards will only invite further attack by the University bosses, who have already displayed their disdain for bargaining with unionized academic workers.

A campaign of escalating information pickets, rallies, and townhalls can build the confidence and awareness, if necessary, for a strike that can quickly force the employer to concede to the demands of academic workers. Perhaps, such a show of power, on behalf of university workers, could get these the bosses to buckle even before a strike is needed.

However, given the experiences over the past years across different sectors, there seems to be consensus among the bosses, and their representatives at Queen’s Park and Ottawa, that breaking the labour movement through attacks on wages, benefits, and pensions is the way forward in the coming years. The immense crisis in capitalism is to be placed on the backs of working-class people. While bankers and corporations were bailed out and given tax breaks, we are expected to pay through layoffs, taking concessions at work, and rising user fees (for education, transit, etc.). As a result, trade unions must fight all the more militantly to be able to even maintain the status quo. Eventually this begs the question: why should we accept an economic system that cannot even provide basic standards of living?

The immediate struggle of university workers at UofT forces the question of solidarity. Academic workers, if they are isolated, will find it much more difficult to win this struggle from the university bosses. The experience of the York University strike in 2009, where the bosses, in alliance with Premier Dalton McGuinty, were able to enact back-to-work legislation to crush the strike, highlight the need for building a united movement of working people and youth.

To be concrete, this means building an immediate alliance between CUPE 3902, other campus trade unions, and the tens of thousands of students. This requires co-ordinated mobilizations around common interests. The step towards highlighting the huge tutorial and lab sizes at UofT is good first step. The political support for CUPE 3902 by Danielle Sandhu, the president of the University of Toronto Students Union (UTSU), is reflective of these connections being made.

The fact remains, however, that the mass of the student population, as well as the ranks of other trade unions, largely do not understand their stake in the current struggle of the academic workers at UofT. At a time where students are facing massive tuition hikes, and other campus workers such as food service workers unionized with UNITE HERE are under the gun and entering a year of bitter bargaining with the administration, there is a pressing need for a genuine fighting alliance.

In Quebec, the university workers at McGill who went on strike have gotten massive support from the student population, and vice-versa, where students are facing some of the largest tuition hikes in Quebec history (of over 100%). This alliance can be explained concretely through the slogan, “A tuition hike is a wage cut,” which relates to the bottom line of many academic workers as well as the mass of students. This slogan mobilized significant support during the University of British Columbia (UBC) strike in 2002 that won significant gains for the workers.

Unions representing academic workers should be openly advocating for the abolition of tuition fees. These demands would immediately rally massive support and create a bridge that could build a united movement.

Today’s labour battles cannot be seen as strictly economic. They are political, whether we like it or not. The massive austerity that is being imposed will affects workers and youth regardless of which sectors they work, or whether they are unionized or not. Furthermore, the threat of back-to-work legislation hangs over the heads of any workers intending to fight back.

We must also organize on a political basis. Let’s build a united struggle against austerity. To the demands of the bosses for tuition hikes, cuts to services and attacks on our collective agreements, we demand free education and good jobs for all!

Victory to the academic workers at UofT!