Update (March 2, 2015 at 10:01 p.m.):
TAs will begin picketing today and CUPE 3902 Unit 3 members will vote on ratifying their agreement this evening.
If the Unit 3 members, who include lecturers, graders, and lab assistants, vote against the agreement at tonight’s meeting, they too will join the picket lines.
UNIT 1 DECLARES STRIKE
On Friday, Unit 1 members voted overwhelmingly to strike down the tentative agreement, which was reached by the bargaining team in the early morning after the deadline had been extended.
A video of the vote posted online shows members cheering and applauding after CUPE 3902 chair Erin Black announced that the motion to ratify the agreement had failed.
Black, who chaired the meeting, said she wasn’t “particularly surprised” by the outcome.
“From the start of the meeting […] it was fairly clear that there was a strong will in the room to vote it down,” she said.
Hours after the tentative settlement was announced and released to Unit 1 members, social media websites blew up with criticism of the agreement. Members expressed dissatisfaction with the failure to increase the value of the minimum funding package, which union representatives had criticized as failing to meet the poverty line in Toronto.
Unit 1 represents mostly graduate students employed as TAs, course instructors, invigilators, and more. About 800 are undergraduates and 100 postdoctoral fellows, according to Tom Laughlin, the bargaining committee-steward’s council representative for Unit 1.
Asked what aspects of the settlement had led the bargaining committee to agree to the deal, Laughlin said that the main points of progress were “qualitative”—for example, improvements in leave rights and the language used to describe them—rather than quantitative.
Improved hiring timelines, genderless language, and grievance procedures were also among the changes in the tentative agreement.
Laughlin said the agreement included a reduction of the TA hours that can be counted in the funding package, but he said it would still leave members below the poverty line.
“We need to now return to the table and get something that our members will find satisfying,” Laughlin said.
He added that union representatives have expressed to the university their desire to meet “as soon as possible” to continue negotiations.
As of Saturday night, Laughlin said the bargaining team had not yet been given information on when they could meet U of T representatives.
UNIT 3 TO VOTE ON AGREEMENT TODAY
Unit 3, representing contract employees, including sessional instructors, hired for terms of less than one year, may declare a strike if the ratification vote fails this evening.
The Unit 3 bargaining team reached a tentative agreement on February 18, which members will vote on at 5 p.m. today. If the motion passes, polls will be opened up to the full membership to vote on the agreement.
Although Unit 3 is not currently in legal strike position, CUPE 3902 chair Erin Black said in a phone interview that members may choose to support Unit 1 in other ways. This can include “not having a class one week or posting notes to Blackboard in lieu of the class […] if members are feeling particularly worried about crossing the picket line,” said Black, adding that members do not have to cross the picket line if they are concerned about their safety.
Black said that although it is difficult to speculate on the outcome of the vote, one of the “big differences” between Unit 1 and Unit 3 has to do with how the main concerns of members were addressed in the tentative agreements.
She said that Unit 1 members struck down their agreement because they felt their main concern—the guaranteed minimum funding package for graduate students—had not been adequately addressed.
“Unit 3 members’ core concern […] was the issue of job security. The tentative agreement that has been reached addresses job security in a number of ways that have not been addressed before,” she said.
“The question that Unit 3 members will have to answer for themselves […] is: are the achievements in job security enough for them?”
U OF T’S RESPONSE
In a memo posted online following Unit 1’s vote against the tentative agreement, Angela Hildyard, U of T’s VP human resources & equity, and Cheryl Regehr, vice-president & provost, said they were “disappointed” by the result.
“The university has been bargaining intensively with CUPE 3902 Unit 1 in order to reach a fair and reasonable renewal collective agreement. We believe that our latest offer meets those criteria,” the memo reads.
Hildyard and Regehr reiterated that U of T would respect the decision of Unit 1 members who wish to strike and those who continue working, saying that “the university will not lock out CUPE 3902 Unit 1 members as long as this remains operationally feasible”.
According to the university’s strike FAQ, all employees who are not part of Unit 1 are expected to continue working. The university also said that Unit 1 members who continue to work would be paid according to their original contracts if they signed declarations.
As of Saturday afternoon, U of T media spokesperson Althea Blackburn-Evans had no news to offer on future meetings with Unit 1.
Following the strike announcement, concerns circulated on social media about “strike-breaking”.
An update to the U of T FAQ on Saturday afternoon mentioned the possibility of Unit 1 members effectively being financially punished by the union if they continue to work during the strike.
“It is the university’s position that access to any funds covered by a collective agreement between the university and CUPE 3902 must be available to all eligible employees and that no employee shall have access to such funds reduced or eliminated on the basis of exercising their legal right to continue to work during a strike called by CUPE 3902,” it said.
According to CUPE 3902’s website, since Unit 1’s expired collective agreement is no longer in effect due to the strike, “if someone chooses to work […], s/he would need to sign a new, individual contract outside the purview of the union”.
Such employees would not benefit from the union’s collective agreement, including health and safety guarantees, overwork protections, entitlement to leaves and sick days, a grievance process for workplace disputes, protection against layoffs, and more, says the website.
Further, CUPE 3902’s constitution says that someone who “fails to respect the local union’s picket line, or works for the employer during a legal strike or a labour dispute, or engages in any strike-breaking activities” is guilty of an offence, which can result in fines or the loss of membership.
On Facebook, union comments included those by Ryan Culpepper, vice-chair for Units 1 and 2, who wrote that the university doesn’t “get to have a position on the matter” on how the union responds to those who cross the picket lines.
Asked about these consequences, Laughlin said the union’s position is that members should not cross the picket lines or perform work that the unit is withholding.
Laughlin said that the union has not yet decided to employ the procedure for limiting union-administered funds for members who choose not to strike. He clarified that the CUPE 3902 can employ the procedure “if the union goes in that direction”.
“Currently, that is not at stake,” he said.
Following the declaration of Unit 1’s strike, UTSU posted the position of its executive team on Facebook.
“We want to see the strike end as soon as possible. We implore the university to negotiate in good faith with CUPE 3902 and offer reasonable compensation for the work its members do,” the post reads.
The statement also compared graduate students’ funding packages to the $100,000+ salaries of over 3,000 U of T administrators and professors and noted of the university’s projected surplus of $200 million for the current year.
UTSU representatives also called for better communication from the university.
“We appreciate that CUPE 3902 has been forthcoming with information,” they wrote. “They have been attempting to communicate with undergraduate students for weeks, via town halls, social media and email. We only received an update from the university a few days ago.”
According to CUPE 3902’s website, the last time Unit 1 went on strike was in 2000. Unit 3 has never gone on strike since unionizing in 2003.