University unions demand livable wage over cost-of-living crisis
The unions representing contract instructors and teaching assistants at York University and the University of Toronto are bargaining for better support.

Unions at York University and the University of Toronto (U of T) representing contract faculty, teaching assistants, and service workers have initiated labour proceedings due to the mounting cost-of-living crisis affecting their members.

On February 26, CUPE 3903, which represents 3,000 York University teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate and postgraduate students, went on strike over failed negotiations with the university to secure job stability and wage increases to combat the cost-of-living crisis. 

Before the strike, in December 2023, reports revealed that some members of CUPE 3903, which stands for Canadian Union of Public Employees, were relying on food banks while struggling to keep up with the cost of living. While the university has maintained that they negotiated a fair agreement, CUPE 3903 has exposed their statement as misinformation and indicated that York University had no intention of submitting any proposals before the strike deadline of February 26. 

Similarly, a coalition of unions from U of T collectively known as “We Are U of T,” has engaged in similar negotiations over the cost of living since October 2023, including CUPE 1230, which represents U of T library workers, CUPE 3261, which represents U of T service staff, and CUPE 3902, which represents U of T contracted faculty. 

On February 15, the unions condemned university administrators as lacking urgency in addressing the concerns of We Are U of T. Soon after, We Are U of T voted for strike action to pressure the university to address worker compensation and offer better support structures for students and faculty. 

On March 3, U of T reached a new tentative deal that addressed many of the concerns held by the unions, thus averting the strike.

Unravelling the negotiations of Bill 124

Both CUPE 3903 and We Are U of T have cited the repeal of Bill 124 as a rationale behind these negotiations. 

Bill 124 was passed by the Ford government on November 7, 2019, and capped any annual wage increases in public sector jobs to one per cent. This prompted an outcry from various unions representing public sector workers, which challenged the bill in the Ontario Superior Court. On November 29, 2022, the court promptly struck the act down as unconstitutional because the law interfered with the unions’ negotiating rights.

While the Ford government appealed the ruling to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court upheld the decision made by the Superior Court on February 12, 2024, asserting that the act “significantly restrict[ed] the scope and areas left open in the collective bargaining process.” 

In response, Ford announced a repeal of Bill 124 on February 23. The Ontario Court of Appeal decision and Ford’s announcement of repeal prompted a new round of negotiations in both York University and U of T.

Throughout this process, the cost of living has been steadily on the rise. According to Statistics Canada, the Consumer Price Index—which measures the change in the price of consumer goods—increased by 2.9 per cent in the last year. The Bank of Canada’s Inflation Calculator indicates that the rate of inflation has increased by 15.72 per cent since January 2020. 

With the repeal of Bill 124, the unions set out to renegotiate to ensure their wages can keep up with the increased cost of living. CUPE 3903 stated that a four per cent salary increase per year would return wages to parity with inflation.

On March 3, after many weeks of bargaining, We Are U of T reached an agreement with U of T on a new contract that promised to address cost-of-living issues. The new measures include a 12.8 per cent wage increase over three years, more healthcare benefits including mental health services, more time for appointments with students, promises of a transit discount, and extra paid personal time off. 

In contrast, CUPE 3903 maintained its position of striking indefinitely due to the continued hostile environment exhibited by York University, including sending police to intimidate strikers. 

On February 24, CUPE 3903 posted a page to address frequently asked questions regarding strikes for students. On the site, they clarify their demands by focusing on student-faculty working conditions and wage concerns following the fallout of Bill 124. They emphasize the importance of job security to student learning, noting that greater job security would “[give] instructors more time to plan courses and [create] an overall better learning environment” for students.

In a post last updated on March 3, the union identified wages and benefits as the main detractor of negotiations, accusing York University of not bargaining in good faith.

As of March 7, CUPE 3903 remains on strike, while We Are U of T is waiting to finalize its tentative deal by next week.


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