Workers at the University of Toronto and York University have held strike votes and received a mandate to potentially take strike action. Both groups of workers are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), in locals 3902 and 3903 respectively. Together, the unions represent nearly 11,000 academic staff at the two universities.

CUPE 3902 members voted 92.1 per cent in favour of strike action in November 2014. There was record participation in the vote, with twice as many members voting than in previous rounds of negotiations with the U of T administration. A strike deadline has been set for Feb. 24 if an agreement cannot be reached. At the end of January, 80 per cent of CUPE 3903 members (York University) voted for taking strike action if negotiations were not successful. Additionally, custodial and maintenance workers at York University, organized in CUPE 1356, are also engaged in bargaining. 

The primary demands of the workers are job security, tuition fees, class sizes, wages, and research funding. The demands concerning security, wages, and tuition are unsurprising given the significant precariousness of many of these workers, who generally work for contracts of one year or less.

For example, sessional lecturers have no guarantees of the number of courses, if any, that they will be able to teach and are often told the course subject just weeks before classes. Class sizes, workload increases, and the amount of time they have to support students are constantly undermined. 

These workers provide approximately 50 per cent of the teaching workload, yet comprise around 8 per cent of the university budget. The overwork, underpayment, lack of security, and work hours all have a negative effect on the quality of education for students. 

The university administration and pro-business media commentators often highlight that the teaching assistants (TAs), who are part of the union, make $42 per hour. The reality is that the amount of hours they have to work far exceeds the number of paid hours allotted. Furthermore, rising tuition fees constantly eat into this salary, which typically stand above $8,000/year. As a result, TA salaries are approximately $10,000 below the poverty line! 

Standstill in bargaining

Administrators on campus are bargaining stubbornly and refusing to meet the demands of workers. The clear message is that below-poverty wages are acceptable for teaching and educational staff. 

The stance of top-management at both universities on the wages and benefits of their staff stands in sharp contrast to their own obscene salaries and perks. The salaries of the presidents at both universities is approximately $500,000 each, in addition to other perks (such as a Rosedale mansion for the U of T president). 

On the Board of Governors of both universities, one will find a who’s who of business elites from the biggest banks and corporations, as well as political elite linked to the establishment. These include former presidents and senior executives from TD Bank, Scotiabank, HSBC, and CIBC, as well as from weapon manufacturer SNC Lavalin, mining companies, telecommunications firms (such as Rogers), and even former chiefs of police. It should be noted that none of these board members are elected, with the exception of a small number of student representatives.

The position of the administration crying poor, of declaring that there are insufficient funds to provide good jobs on the campus, reeks of hypocrisy. As most students are aware, post-secondary education is run as a corporate-inspired business, and not as the public service it should be. 

However, despite the clear profit-orientation and business-world connections of the governing boards and top management, the fundamental problem facing the education sector does not actually lie with local administration. The real obstacle to providing good working and learning conditions is the lack of provincial and federal government funding to post-secondary education.  

Who should students support in the current dispute?

The issues are often presented to students as such: if wages and job security are improved, then tuition fees will have to increase. This is an inaccurate and hypocritical presentation of the matter by anti-union and pro-business commentators. The record shows that tuition fees have skyrocketed while at the same time more and more university staff are on short-term contracts with lower pay.

The fundamental problem is inadequate public funding. From 1980 to 2010, the percentage of university funding provided for by tuition fees increased from 15 per cent to approximately 43 per cent. Meanwhile, public funding decreased from 80 to 50 per cent of university operating budgets. 

The lack of public funding is what has contributed to both skyrocketing tuition fees and the creation of a low-wage, contract-based academic sweatshop. Additionally, an ever-growing amount of university funding comes from partnerships and donations from the corporate elite, which comes with strings attached in regards to curriculum and research.

Students and university workers have a common interest in fighting for increased public funding to post-secondary education. This would result in the reduction of tuitions while also improving the work conditions and salaries of campus workers, and provide a marked improvement in the quality of education (including research) that would benefit students and society as a whole. 

Indeed, our goal should be for fully-funded post-secondary education to ensure that all workers are well-paid, that tuition fees are abolished, and that all corporate donations are scrapped.

Towards the goal of building student-worker solidarity, the Socialist Fightback clubs at U of T, York, Seneca, and Ryerson have pledged to support CUPE 3902 and 3903, organized student solidarity with campus workers, and are making plans to mobilize picket line support in the event of a strike. Those interested in these efforts should contact us and spread the word to fellow students.   

Furthermore, Fightback and our local campus clubs are demanding that the various student union locals commit to making student-worker solidarity a priority; to release public statements defending campus labour unions; to place the onus of a potential strike on the administration and the Ontario Liberal government; and to mobilize students to the picket lines. 

What are university workers facing? 

While there is a desperate need for more public funding to post-secondary education, the current government is committed to the very opposite. The Ontario Liberal government is in the process of carrying out austerity measures, which include spending cuts and the privatization of public services. A range of sectors from health to education will be heavily affected.  

In the recent provincial election, Kathleen Wynne publicly presented the Liberal Party in a progressive and labour-friendly manner, however her budget proposals clearly outlined deep austerity measures comparable to those of Mike Harris in the 1990s. The Ontario Liberals, having won a majority government, are prepared to wage a war on public services and the labour movement.

Premier Wynne announced that the provincial government’s approach to public sector negotiations will be based on the principle of a “net-zero mandate”. That means in negotiations with university workers, nurses, teachers, child care, LCBO, and other workers in the public service, the government will be asserting wage freezes. For workers to get a wage increase, it would have to come from savings found by reducing workers benefits, pensions, or the size of the workforce, hence the result would be “net zero”. 

This is a plan for real wages falling (as inflation or the cost of living increases), for cuts to benefits, or eliminating jobs (and therefore reducing services). For example, workers represented by the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO), signed a 4-year collective agreement with the government. The terms included two years of wage freezes, followed by two years of 1.4 per cent increases that were taken from reductions in benefits. 

The Liberal government “net-zero mandate” represents a major offensive on workers across Ontario. It is directly connected to the confrontation developing on campuses and the stubbornness of the university administrations in negotiations. The Liberals are slashing spending on public services, and this is a recipe for declining standards of living for workers, including rising tuitions, user fees and reductions in services. 

Workers must refuse to pay for a crisis created by the bosses

The reason for the Liberal government’s austerity plan is the dire economic situation in Ontario (and Canada). The provincial deficit stands at $12.5-billion, and the total debt is $288-billion. This is a result of the economic crisis in 2008 (and the resulting devastation of the manufacturing base in Ontario), as well as corporate tax breaks and stimulus packages in response to the crisis. Rating agencies have been threatening to downgrade Ontario’s credit rating if the deficit is not slashed, which would result in increased interest payments on debt. 

CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903 are therefore waging a struggle against public sector austerity. At its root, this is a struggle against the capitalist system which is in crisis, and the bosses who are trying to make the working class carry the burden for a crisis they created. 

The implications of the capitalist crisis for university workers is that to win their demands – indeed to even maintain status quo wages and benefits in the face of inflation – mass mobilization, particularly strike action, will be needed to defeat the “net-zero” mandate. In the face of a resolute alliance of campus administrations and the Ontario Liberals, the conciliatory tactics of the past will not suffice. Militant tactics coupled with solidarity action by the labour movement, including students and the broader working class will be required. 

If the university workers at U of T and York break the “net-zero” mandate of Premier Wynne, it would set a precedent for the public sector. Therefore, there will be enormous pressure and effort by the ruling class to defeat CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. 

The maxim that an “injury to one is an injury to all” applies in the most concrete manner in this fight. A defeat of university workers prepares the ground for subsequent attacks on teachers, day care workers, and nurses. Conversely, a victory for university workers over the “net-zero” mandate would embolden the entire labour movement and set an example that austerity measures can be defeated through bold and militant strike action. It would be a significant blow to the ruling class agenda. 

Break the zero mandate! 

We won’t pay for the bosses’ crisis! 

Students and workers unite against Liberal austerity!