On Friday February 27, teaching assistants at the University of Toronto (members of CUPE 3902) voted to reject a tentative agreement offered by the university management and immediately go on strike.
A strike deadline had been set for the previous night at 11:59 pm; the CUPE bargaining team agreed to extend the strike deadline for three hours while the university put together a last-minute deal. At 2:45 am, the bargaining team agreed to accept a tentative deal and unanimously recommended the package to the membership.
On Friday, I, like many other rank-and-file members of CUPE 3902, woke up to find this deal in our inbox. Almost all of us are both teaching assistants and graduate students at the University of Toronto. After a week of waiting anxiously to hear the final word about our strike deadline, we were hopeful that the university would agree to our key demands in order to keep classes running. A cursory read of the document confirmed the fear of many members, however; the new collective agreement would not even raise them to the poverty line for a single person living in Toronto.
The main bargaining commitment of the union throughout the collective agreement negotiations has been to raise the total value of the minimum funding package. The current funding minimum package is a stipend of $15,000 per year (if you are in a “funded cohort”, which is not everyone; students in professional programs are rarely funded), for which 205 teaching and research assistant hours must be worked, paid at $42.05 an hour. Although the hourly wage is quite large, most of the work done by grad students is outside what we do for our teaching assistantships. Research doneas part of our thesis work is not counted, for instance. This work generates a great deal of revenue for the university in terms of grants and funding, but is only paid by a research stipend of $6,500 per year. Most graduate students work the equivalent of a full-time worker, teaching and doing their research, but they are paid almost $8,000 a year below the poverty line. Raising the total minimum funding package has been the top priority for the union in this negotiation.
The new collective agreement did little to fix any of this. Although the university had retreated from its earlier position of “net zero” gains to the funding package, the wage increases were below the rate of inflation. The total funding would increase to about $17,000 per year by the end of 2017, although this is based on assuming that new funds from a graduate bursary fund will be used to aid members receiving the guaranteed minimum package. Although this would be an improvement, it’s still more than $6,000 below the poverty line. There were some advances made in the negotiations, including new funds to pay medical insurance fees for international students as well as changes to the grievance process making it easier for sexual assault charges to be filed. None of this makes up for the fact that we would still be earning poverty wages for full-time work. Overall, the bargaining team had failed to put forwards an agreement that met the most important demands of the membership.
About 1,000 rank-and-file members gathered at Convocation Hall for a union meeting to discuss the agreement. The tension in the room was palpable. After a long wait in line, we all gathered in the hall, nervous but excited to discuss the tentative agreement. Even before the meeting was called to order, the room was filled many times with calls for strike and thunderous applause. Although many of us were nervous about the prospect of a strike, meeting in such large numbers reassured many that they weren’t alone in wanting to fight for a better collective agreement. It was clear from the beginning that the motto of this meeting was “STRIKE”!
The main purpose of the meeting was to vote on a resolution made, and seconded, by the bargaining team that this tentative agreement be put to the membership for a ratification vote. If this motion failed, then we would be on strike immediately. The bargaining team gave a presentation, which was met with applause at some points, boos at others. Afterwards started a question period. Many of the members who asked questions clearly pointed to exposing the poor quality of the package, asking rhetorical questions to point out the near insulting nature of the tentative agreement.
One member asked the bargaining team whether the administration had required the bargaining team to recommend the tentative agreement unambiguously before they would offer the deal. The bargaining team answered yes and the floor broke into a chorus of laughter and boos. The implication was clear – although some of the bargaining team might have opposed the tentative agreement, they backed down and supported what they thought to be a bad agreement. This weakness of the bargaining team only made the membership more likely to vote against the agreement.
After the question period, there was a debate on the motion. This was essentially a debate and vote on whether to go on strike immediately. The line to speak against the motion (and go on strike) was several times longer than the line to speak for the motion. Many of the speakers for the motion were actually in favour of going on strike, but felt that the decision to vote should be made at a subsequent meeting to allow more of the membership to attend. There was far more applause for the speakers against the motion; several times I worried about the strength of the roof! The loudest applause came at the end however, when a speaker commented that a university is not a business, and that we had a right to be there.
The vote was very quick, about 90% of the room voted down the motion. The enthusiastic cheering drowned out the largest speaker system at U of T. With that we started our strike. In many ways this was the easy part. Recognizing that a bad agreement is bad and saying so is easy, fighting for it is harder. Even so, I have every confidence that we are ready to fight for a fair deal, and that the picket lines will be strong on Monday.
How do we build the movement going forwards? There are some things that need to be done. First, we must build solidarity across the student movement. Although this strike is against the university administration, it affects the undergraduate students most. We have to show these students how our struggle helps them both as students but also as future workers. Second, the strike needs to be widened. Sessional instructors (CUPE 3902 Unit 3 members) have voted to put their agreement to a ratification vote, but this vote has not yet taken place. Sessional instructors could join the strike. York educational workers (CUPE 3903) are also potentially going on strike. Locals 3902 and 3903 should unite against the provincial government’s net-zero mandate and fight for a fair deal for workers at both universities. This struggle should also be connected to other trade unions, since it is a fight against the broad austerity of the Liberal government. Thirdly, the leadership of the union needs to be prepared to fight for a fair contract. The rank-and-file membership has shown that it has no confidence in the bargaining team, they should resign and be replaced with leaders who are willing to fight for a fair deal.
Robert Fajber is a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto and a picket captain in the current strike