Not proceeding as normal

Both sides need to be upfront about what’s going on for fruitful talk to happen


The front pages of both UTM’s and U of T’s websites don’t show much about the strike going on. Below large banners about various events and promotions are small text headlines linking to memos. On the main U of T website a little green checkmark beside the words “Campus Status” indicates that all is well.

But all is not well.

Many labs, tutorials, and even some lectures are not being run, including upper-year seminars. Even for courses not directly affected by Unit 1 members, campus conditions are a tempting invitation to students to check out of their education for the time being. Despite the claim reported in the Star on Sunday by “a university spokeswoman” that “none of the striking workers are instructors in their own right”—whatever that means—some of them are in fact instructors and their classes can’t meet this week.

And at the current rate, they might not be able to for a while. The university is in strong denial mode. An op ed by provost Cheryl Regehr yesterday in The Huffington Post talks about the “generous agreement” offered to TAs (helpfully linked at the bottom of any of our news articles about it so far), and is titled “Let U of T Teaching Assistants Vote on Agreement”.

Whether or not the agreement is generous, a description disputed by CUPE 3902 but which I won’t get into as an interested TA myself, one thing’s confusing about that article. The Labour Relations Act allows an employer to put their last offer to a union’s membership for a vote whether or not the union likes it. Who is Regehr asking to “let” TAs vote on it? It’s her team’s call.

Most of the university’s communication has been like that, just shy of fair. They express “disappointment” that TAs turned down the “investment” they want to make “because of the importance we place on teaching assistants”. The picture this paints of the opposition is such a straw man it’s not even funny—baboons who don’t even know a free gift when they see it. Calling what you’ve been pressured to concede “an investment” is just face-saving.

Speaking of which, the team hasn’t bothered to write letters or op eds for us or The Varsity. Their replies to us on the subject consist of quotes from memos. The tactic of saying little and sticking to the official version is safe except if it comes to define your mode of communication. It’s not a good look.

(To be fair, that’s not to say the union is a dignified bunch who have it all together. The many comments on Facebook and on the articles written by or quoting admin are, as often as not, comments by random members with reformulated quotes, mostly bile to spew, and patronizing words for the administrators. They’re the opposite of reined-in, and it doesn’t help the bargainers look like they know what they’re doing either.)

The reason the university wants to say that operations are still normal is that a strike’s purpose is to make things uncomfortable, and the more comfortable things are the less effective it will be, as a humanities prof reminded me yesterday. This is borne out by quotes like this one by Angela Hildyard, VP human resources and equity: “Thank you for doing everything you can to minimize the impact on our students. Work disruptions like these are extremely difficult. At the end of the day, however, we will all have to find ways to work together harmoniously…”

But tactics like this actually backfire on them and it’s the students who pay the price. PWC director Guy Allen, whose department has five courses that are on hold because two instructors are in Unit 1, said he was surprised by the lack of direction department heads have so far been given to figure out what to do about the 200 disenfranchised students in those courses. The policy of tightlippedness, an attempt to play down the ramifications of the strike, actually exacerbates the problem. Problems have to be acknowledged to be addressed.

There’s one thing to look forward to right now. In that same memo Hildyard writes that the university will sit down with CUPE 3902 “as soon as the provincial mediator thinks there is a basis to return to the bargaining table”. I mean, it’s a little promising. But the key is the “basis to return to the bargaining table”. What sort of a basis will that be? I expect it means as soon as either party budges on what it’s prepared to accept.

In other words: As soon as either Unit 1 or the university shows signs of relenting. And I don’t see that happening just yet.

Things are harder right now. No, the university isn’t in chaos, as it will be if Unit 3 strikes next week. But classes, exams, events, and community programs are not—contrary to the latest strike update available on UTM’s front page—all “proceeding as normal”. Both sides will try to blame the difficulties this on the other. That doesn’t get anything nearer to actually returning to normal.

Luke Sawczak