Thoughts on why it broke down

U of T’s tactics might explain why members threw out an offer reps accepted

So. After several close calls over the last 15 years, we finally have a real live strike on our hands.

It’s big, but for that reason comment on it will mostly be obvious. My words on it will be few—also because I happen to be a TA and hence have a stake. Heck, TAs could potentially lose union membership and other benefits if they cross picket lines, says their FAQ, let alone write editorials…

But my opinion isn’t the majority one. When CUPE 3902 Unit 1 asked us to authorize the strike, I said no, as one of so few they didn’t tally us up. I mostly did that because I’ll be out soon anyhow, and I didn’t bother to learn about the issues. (Honestly, I’d probably lead labs for free.)

Those issues are now easily looked up; the main line is wages, and the oft-cited argument for getting more is that graduate TAs have a funding package of $15,000 per year, but the poverty line in Toronto is now over $23,000. (I’m also not part of the cohort whose rights are mainly being discussed, as a non-grad student TA.)

In response to the strike, last night featured a university press release that skimmed very briefly over the issues, in which provost Cheryl Regehr says they offered what they did “because of the importance we place on TAs”. Aha. But only so much, it seems.

What interests me more than the issues themselves is the bargaining phenomena that led to the strike. First of all, the tentative agreement for Unit 1 was made a few hours after midnight and the strike deadline was originally midnight, before being extended. A senior professor predicted this playing out at events a few weeks ago, remarking that U of T’s labour division has an unwritten policy of waiting till the very last second before putting anything serious on the table. They also gave very few dates for bargaining to the union.

In both Unit 3 and Unit 1’s cases, the bargaining team accepted the offer made at this late hour. Unit 3, who also settled in the wee hours at 2:30 a.m. did so before their deadline; they’ve had almost two weeks to think about the offer before the members’ vote today that will determine whether they accept it—and if they don’t, the strike will instantly get far more severe.

Meanwhile, Unit 1 only had about 12 hours to decide. The vote, which took place on Friday, was very interesting. The vice-chair of the unit, Ryan Culpepper, estimated that 90% of the members voted not to ratify. In a video of the vote, the room is obviously heated and eager to strike it down. This despite an email from Culpepper to the members in which he says, “All seven bargaining team members believe that this is an agreement we can be proud of, with many significant gains for our members.”

So… what happened between then and the vote? Did the bargaining team sign the agreement cluelessly, out of desperation, insincerely, or what?

When we asked the steward of the team, Tom Laughlin, why they had approved it but the members hadn’t, he said that they had made “qualitative” rather than “quantitative”, “financial” gains. He didn’t elaborate on why not making financial gains seemed all right to them. Maybe the deadline pressured the resolution, and it’s really bargaining tactics like that from the university that are being protested now. After all, as I look through the agreement they reached, I do in fact see some financial gains—both directly to wages and indirectly to health and how the funding package is calculated.

Well, speaking of the university playing fair, the ball’s in their court. Union reps say they’ve asked for dates to resume talks as soon as possible, even today, but haven’t heard back.

The university’s stance, judging by the memos and FAQs, seems to be that they’ll just work around it while keeping the door wide open for individual TAs who want to break ranks and keep working. Meanwhile, no state of disruption has been declared, which would let students and faculty off the hook for some responsibilities that will be harder to fulfill now.

The union says “#weareuoft”; the university has other ideas.

 

YOURS,

LUKE SAWCZAK