By Gerard Di Trolio
On Friday evening University of Toronto graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) overwhelmingly voted at a mass meeting of over a 1,000 people to reject a tentative agreement reached between their union, CUPE Local 3902, and the university’s administration earlier that day. Approximately 6,000 Unit 1 TAs are now on strike and pickets will begin on Monday.
Contract faculty at U of T who are part of Local 3902 Unit 3 reached a tentative agreement on February 18. The agreement will be presented for a unanimous recommendation of ratification on March 2. The key issue for Unit 3 was job security, and Local 3902 Chair Dr. Erin Black says the tentative agreement addresses this.
The main sticking point to the rejected tentative agreement by Unit 1 is the issue of graduate funding. TAs are left with $15,000 per year in graduate funding. That is approximately 35 percent below the poverty line for a single person in Toronto. The $15,000 figure has been frozen since 2008. Local 3902 members would like to see the funding at the low income cut off line for a single person in Toronto, which would be roughly $22,000.
The U of T administration claimed that they could only deliver compensation increases in the one or two percent range. The administration has continuously stressed that the province is demanding strict budgeting and can’t offer up significant increase to the graduate funding. The rejected tentative agreement had provided for a 4.5 percent increase over three years, which would still leave TAs well below the poverty line.
“U of T has posted budget surpluses over the last three years however, so the claims of challenging financial times ring a little hollow for CUPE 3902 members,” says Black.
In perspective, U of T President Meric Gertler made $351,747.72 in 2013.
Another major change sought by Local 3902 was the number of hours of work covered by the collective agreement that each graduate student is required to perform. Right now Unit 1 members are required to perform a maximum of 205 hours of work each year. The administration sees that as simply being a part of gaining their graduate funding.
“We think that amount needs to go down and ultimately we’d like to divorce work and funding all together so that work is work that pays by the hour and funding is funding,” says Local 3902 Vice Chair Ryan Culpepper.
Increasingly the university has been requiring work of graduate students that is not covered by Local 3902’s collective agreement.
“We’re trying to get a cap on total work, not just CUPE work because the cap on CUPE work is meaningless if there is unlimited amounts of other work,” says Culpepper.
Much of this additional work outside the collective agreement has taken the form of research and editing for projects being pursued by faculty.
The tentative agreement offered a reduction to 180 hours of work from 205, phased in over the course of the contract.
When news of a tentative agreement was reached, Local 3902’s rank and file sprang into action.
“A couple of us met from a few departments on Friday morning, took a look at the tentative agreement. We put together a table of what were bargaining and what we were offered. We printed out 2,000 copies of it and handed it out as (graduate) students were going into Convocation Hall and talked to them about how this agreement doesn’t address any of the bargaining priorities we set,” says Graduate student and Local 3902 member Chris Webb. “This was a really effective tool in convincing people that this doesn’t address their basic demands that were democratically put forward.”
The University of Toronto Faculty Association representing professors and academic librarians (UFTA) has already sent out a letter advising its members not to take on an extraordinary amount of work in case of a disruption or to compromise their academic freedom to ensure what the administration calls “academic continuity.” The UTFA is also advising its members not to perform TA duties as that would be taking sides in a labour dispute. The UTFA is leaving the issue of crossing picket lines up to its members on an individual level.