Toronto teaching assistants on strike for rights as both workers and students

U of T’s administration is waging a misleading public relations campaign about its offer to TAs
Maïka Sondarjee

Toronto has been shaken by strikes at its two largest universities.

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The collective agreement for CUPE 3902, Unit 1, which represents teaching assistants at the University of Toronto, expired on Apr. 30, 2014. Few meetings occurred during the first eight months between the university administration and union bargaining team, and no real advancement towards a deal was visible. In November, a strike vote took place, and the membership legally authorized the union to call a strike.

The two parties reached a tentative deal on Feb. 27 at 3 a.m., the day of the strike deadline. In a general meeting on the same day, 90 per cent of CUPE 3902-01 members in attendance rejected the administration’s proposal, sending 6,000 TAs and other academic workers on strike. On Mar. 2, CUPE 3903 members at York University also voted against their administration’s offer and for a strike.

Most labour disputes revolve around wage increases, as well as their ethical, financial and logistical constraints. But the struggle of teaching assistants at the University of Toronto differs from a typical labour dispute in an important way: all part-time TAs are also full-time graduate students. This double hat makes it difficult for TAs to negotiate their hourly wage without also negotiating their overall funding package, which in the end determines their real paycheque.

The university administration persists in addressing TAs as employees only, with no concerns for their duality in identity. In a constant effort to discredit TAs and the union representing them, CUPE 3902, the vice-president and provost of U of T, Cheryl Regehr, boasts of the “generous” wage increase offered by the administration, even penning a piece in the Huffington Post about it. With a narrow focus on wages, she skillfully brands U of T as a model employer in the media.

An illusory wage increase

The proposed wage raise from $42.05 to $43.97 an hour seems sufficiently generous on the surface, leading many people to wonder what the uproar is about, especially after the university administration spread misleading images comparing this wage to those offered by the University of British Columbia and McGill University.

Dr. Regehr hides an elephant in her office: an increase in hourly wage will not raise the yearly salary of most teaching assistants.

Dr. Regehr hides an elephant in her office: an increase in hourly wage will not raise the yearly salary of most teaching assistants.

First, a graduate student’s standard funding package remains fixed at $15,000 a year, as it has for the past seven years. The administration has, of course, omitted this fact in its public relations. The TAs’ basic demand for a funding package that reaches the Toronto poverty line of $19,307, a figure taken from Statistics Canada data for 2010, seems rather reasonable. Yet from day one the university administration has refused any concessions on this crucial issue.

The administration has offered a disaggregated 4.5 per cent wage increase (0.5 per cent every six months for 2.5 years, then 0.75 per cent in January 2017 and 1.25 per cent in May 2017). This raise does not even account for the inflation rate of the past seven years as the TA funding package stagnated at $15,000. In other words, even if the salary portion of the package increases, the scholarship portion depreciates: a small wage increase changes nothing.

The University of British Columbia offers a package deal of $20,000 to all incoming PhD students, plus a first year of doctoral studies free of teaching duties so students can dedicate themselves to their graduate studies. The University of Montreal offers a similar funding package of $20,000 to most PhD students, in a city where the costs of living are half those of Toronto. The unsustainable position held by U of T undermines a ranking and reputation that has taken the institution so long to build.

On top of all this, included in U of T’s proposal is a change in the maximum number of paid work hours allowed for TAs, which would be reduced from 205 to 180, effective in September 2017. The math isn’t favourable for graduate students, who will earn less, not more.

A strategy of deceit

The university administration has consistently referred to the necessity of sending the proposed deal to the union membership. This claim is deceitful for two main reasons. First, while one may disagree with a union’s constitutional processes and mandates, the employer must respect its employees’ constitutional and decision-making mechanisms. The CUPE 3902 bylaws clearly stipulate that “before subjecting a Collective Agreement to a ratification vote . . . the decision to hold a ratification vote shall first be approved at a unit meeting by a majority of votes cast.”

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 27, the day of the strike deadline, the bargaining team finally reached a deal with the university administration that they felt should be sent for approval to their colleagues. What this meant is that the team responsibly submitted the proposal to a general meeting. Approximately 90 per cent of the 1,000 registered members at the meeting voted not to send the agreement to a full ratification vote, so the bargaining team had to reject the deal and initiate the strike that was previously voted for via referendum with 90.3 per cent of ballots in favour.

The second reason that the university administration’s call to send the proposed deal to the union membership is strategically deceitful is that, as stipulated in the 1995 Ontario Labour Relations Act, section 42.1, the employer has the right to call for a vote on their offer:

Before or after the commencement of a strike or lockout, the employer of the employees in the affected bargaining unit may request that a vote of the employees be taken as to the acceptance or rejection of the offer of the employer.

In other words, the recent call by Dr. Regehr for yet another referendum, in the media rather than at the negotiation table, shows great condescension — or ignorance — of the rules and bylaws governing relations between unionized employees and an employer. In the end, if it was the university administration’s right to send the agreement for a broad ratification vote, why didn’t it do so right after the deal was reached? Why wait for the beginning of the strike to write an op-ed in the Huffington Post, rather than call the bargaining team directly? Dr. Regehr’s absence at the negotiation table since the beginning of the strike and the delays this has caused are hard to ignore, to say the least.

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