The U of T Education Workers held a town hall last week to discuss the ongoing bargaining between teaching assistants and the administration. CUPE Local 3902, the union that represents university TAs and sessional instructors, is negotiating contracts for student academic workers.
The greatest grievance is wages and benefits; little progress was made after the first conciliation meeting. Teaching assistants at U of T receive an annual salary of $15,000. Moreover, considering the various duties and responsibilities included in their contracts, the union states that the current working conditions do not allow employees to adequately pursue research objectives and teach undergraduate students.
At the beginning of the term, TAs discuss their contract with the professor. They are hired to work for a determined number of hours and the total time is divided between the tasks they are expected to complete. According to representatives at the town hall, this usually works out to allow for 20 minutes of marking per essay or test.
As a result, undergraduate students do not receive criticism or feedback on their work. TAs also do not receive compensation for overtime.
The union requested that wages increase with inflation each year, according to the Consumer Price Index for Toronto.
“You have to ask yourself how good of a job you can do in that time,” said Ryan Culpepper, chair of the bargaining committee and a history TA at the St. George campus. “I can skim through the essay and leave a few comments at the end. That’s a consequence of the fact that my tutorials are too big and the department doesn’t have any more hours to give.”
Meanwhile, the university eliminated the Doctoral Completion Grant and replaced it with the Doctoral Completion Award. By switching to a competitive awards system, many graduate students that were eligible for the grant will no longer receive funding. The grant covered approximately 40% of tuition.
After almost nine months without a contract and failure to reach a decision during the bargaining process, the university filed for conciliation (a provincial conciliator mediates between the two parties). Out of four meetings set up for the month of January, three remain. If the university and the union cannot reach an agreement, there could be a lockout or strike in approximately a month.
In a vote taken in November, over 91% of union members supported the option to strike.
“If conciliation breaks down, it won’t be us,” Culpepper said. “We have made it clear that we want to negotiate. We’re hopeful that the conciliator will help us reach common ground.”
The university could lock out teaching assistants, preventing them from instructing classes, leading tutorials, and marking assignments.
Amy Buitenhuis, UTM coordinator of the bargaining committee and geography TA, encouraged students to become familiar with the university’s academic continuity policies.
In the event of a disruption, instructors will determine whether changes to the classroom procedures are necessary. The proposed changes should be discussed with students and a vote held with those present. If a student feels that their mark was unreasonably affected by the disruption, they can appeal the grade.
If a disruption is declared in a specific course after the last date to drop, students can withdraw without academic penalty and will receive a full refund of the course tuition fee.