Twenty-four days: the time left for U of T and members of CUPE 3902 to reach an agreement or the latter will go on strike.
U of T and Units 1 and 3 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902 have been involved in negotiations for several months to agree on a new contract.
Unit 1 consists of graduate and undergraduate students employed as TAs, lab assistants, instructors, and graders, while Unit 3 represents academic staff employed under contracts of less than one year, including sessional instructors.
Both units have set a deadline for February 26 at 11:59 p.m. to reach an agreement or they will declare a strike.
Last Wednesday, the union members organized a town hall at the St. George campus to explain their concerns to undergraduate students and the reasons for a possible strike.
Among its demands, CUPE 3902 members are asking for higher wages, improved health benefits, tutorial size caps, and more job security.
UNIT 1 DEMANDS
At the event, Ryan Culpepper, vice-chair of Unit 1 (and 2, which is not involved in the negotiations), said that while information is circulating that TAs earn $42.05 per hour, few TAs actually make that amount.
Culpepper said that graduate students are given a minimum funding package of $15,000, which may require up to 205 hours of TA work. If a TA works more than the required number of hours, the TA would then earn the hourly rate.
Undergraduate students who are TAs also earn the hourly wage of $42.05, but have hours assigned on a per-course basis.
Culpepper also said that TA funding has been frozen since 2008 along with their health benefits, despite rising medical costs.
He said that at a meeting with U of T administration the previous day, administration said that they would renew the current benefits, but did not agree to any increases.
According to U of T’s Academic Administrative Procedures Manual, sessional lecturers are generally those hired under contracts of less than one year. Some sessional lecturers are required to have advanced degrees.
According to Erin Black, the chair of CUPE 3902, most sessional instructors have the same experience and professional accomplishments as full-time professors, but earn much less and have less job security.
Black has a PhD and has been working as a sessional professor for six years. She called it “shameful” that she works at a university and yet has difficulty paying her living expenses.
She said her own health benefits amount to $275 a year for her whole family.
Culpepper explained that each unit has a single contract shared among its members, which is brought forward for review every few years. Unit 1’s contract expired at the end of last April.
Culpepper called the current round of negotiations “particularly challenging” for CUPE 3902 members, saying that U of T administration was not providing an adequate number of meeting dates to discuss their collective agreement.
“This time we’ve seldom been able to get even more than two dates in a single month,” he said.
U of T declined to answer questions on whether administration would consider adding more bargaining dates if negotiations did not appear to be moving towards an agreement.
The Ministry of Labour has become involved in mediating the negotiations upon CUPE 3902’s request for conciliation.
WHAT A STRIKE COULD MEAN
The terms of the expired contract remain in effect while negotiations for a new one are underway. In the event of a strike, however, those terms would no longer apply.
Black explained that if U of T declares a lockout during a strike, the union members would not be able to work.
In the “near strike” that happened with Unit 1 in 2011, Black said that individual members were allowed to continue to work if they so chose.
“A strong part of our messaging to our own members is that if we do have a strike, we’re certainly going to be encouraging our members not to cross the picket line, that everybody would withdraw their labour,” she said.
Culpepper added that in the past, U of T offered union members a raise if they crossed the picket line.
U of T did not respond to requests for comment on whether it has offered individual agreements to union members in the past, or if this would be a possibility if a strike occurs this year.
U OF T’S RESPONSE
In an email to The Medium, Angela Hildyard, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said that the university remains committed to its Policy on Academic Continuity, which states that the university will provide students with “reasonable opportunity to continue learning and complete academic requirements” in the event of a disruption.
She added that U of T is “committed to reaching agreements with CUPE 3902 Units 1 and 3 that are responsive to the issues CUPE has raised, and that are responsible in light of the university’s challenging fiscal realities”.
At the town hall, Black had said that CUPE 3902’s demands would not cause the university to lose anything given its current surplus.
As of press time, The Medium had not received responses to follow up questions about U of T’s “challenging fiscal realities”.
UTMSU & UTSU’S STANCE
UTMSU president Hassan Havili said that UTMSU is “cautiously optimistic” that an agreement will be reached that reflects the interests of UTM students.
“We believe that the sessional lecturers and writing instructors deserve the job security and benefits that reflect their contribution to the institution’s reputation and position as one of the world’s top teaching and research institutions,” Havili said.
“The money to end the strike does exist,” he added, noting that U of T has raised millions of dollars through its Boundless campaign and has enough resources to invest inside the classroom rather than on “beautification projects like the ‘million-dollar signage’ on Mississauga Road”.
“We hope that the university administration will act in good faith and reach a just settlement with sessional lecturers and writing instructors that reflect their commitment to the academic experience,” he said.
UTSU president Yolen Bollo-Kamara added that UTSU would pressure U of T to reach a “fair contract” with CUPE 3902.
“Some members of CUPE 3902 have been working without a contract for months,” she said. “ If there is a strike, we will demand that the university prioritize reaching compromise expeditiously and compensate students for any lost class hours.”