Teaching Assistants and Adjuncts at Canada’s Two Largest Universities Strike: It’s a Fight for the Future of Higher Education

BREAKING: Union members at York University reject tentative agreement; will remain on strike

Photo credit: CUPE 3902

Canada’s two largest universities, the University of Toronto and York University, are experiencing something they haven’t seen for a while: 10,000 teaching assistants and contract faculty on strike. The strikes have effectively shut down the two universities about a month before the end of their semesters, putting everything on hold for over 100,000 students.

The strikes at the two Toronto-based universities happened in rapid succession as 6,000 teaching assistants and adjunct faculty members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902 at the University of Toronto walked off the job on February 27. They decided to strike after it became clear that management had no intention of negotiating a fair contract that would provide living-wages and some degree of job security. Just three days later, about 3,700 members of CUPE 3903 at York University, citing similar issues, took to the picket lines as well.

Over the weekend, CUPE 3903 union representatives announced that they reached a tentative agreement with York University that union representatives characterized as a “historic” agreement. The tentative agreement includes a plan to “more than triple the number of tenure-track professors it will hire in the next three years from its pool of contract faculty,” freeze tuition for graduate students for the life of the contract, the creation of a new childcare fund of $200,000 per year, modest annual raises, and a range of other non-economic issues that were priorities for the union, according to the Toronto Star article (you can see a full summary of the agreement here). While the union leadership is making a strong case for a “yes” vote on the contract, not all members – including some former members of the bargaining unit that went on strike in 2000 – are in support of the agreement (see, for example, the CUPE 3903 Rank and File Network Facebook page). Voting on the tentative agreement took place today; the polls closed at 8:30pm.

CUPE 3903 Strike Update
Photo credit: @BleedBlueBassem, Twitter

JUST IN: Just moments ago, CUPE 3903 posted the results of the vote: The tentative agreement is voted down; the strike continues.

The strike at University of Toronto will continue until members of that bargaining unit have an agreement. Negotiations at the University of Toronto are decidedly more tense and, according to the student newspaper, The Varsitysome union members are not hopeful that an agreement will be reached any time soon:

[S]ome CUPE 3902 Unit 1 members, like Michael Collins, a PhD candidate in English, say they are frustrated by the administration’s apparent unwillingness to return to the bargaining table. “I don’t think many of us feel hopeful, let alone confident, that a deal will be reached soon. Every signal from the [university administration] thus far indicates that they are digging in their heels and are prepared to fight dirty,” Collins says.

Collins also expressed concern over tactics university administration has used to attempt to sway public opinion. “I’d say it has damaged any sense of pride or belonging I might feel toward the University of Toronto as a whole — they have waged a very dishonest and adversarial campaign against us,” he says. “You do not treat colleagues the way striking workers have been treated by this [public relations] campaign.”

The University of Toronto administration has waged a slick anti-union, public relations campaign that has used the classic “lazy, privileged professor/student” frame to paint striking teaching assistants and contract faculty as ungrateful and greedy. For example, the university has continued to publicize it is offering to increase their pay from $42.05/hour to $43.97/hour, touting how generous such a wage is. However, they do not say that graduate students are limited to $15,000 per year and the new pay increase will come with an hourly cap that ensures that graduate students continue to be paid $15,000 per year.

UofT CORRECTIONOver the weekend, CUPE 3902 union members sent out a “corrected” copy of the administration’s “fact sheet,” with a big fat “F” at the top. A note in the header says, “This assignment does not meet the minimum standards. See me after class.” With an administration that is publicly misrepresenting the issues at stake in the strike, the battle lines seems to be hardening.

Speaking to the The Varsity, Andrea Day, a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of English, said,

By publicly devaluing our research and teaching skills and attempting to portray us as petulant children… the University has shown that its position lacks substance and that it expects [undergraduates] and community members to be fooled by smoke and mirrors.”

These strikes at University of Toronto and York University come directly on the heals of National Adjunct Walkout Day, which sought to draw attention the intense exploitation of contingent faculty members in higher education.

Canadian universities have been slowly moving toward the kind of higher education labor system what we have seen in the U.S. for some time now: the bulk of instruction is carried out by teaching assistants and adjuncts working for poverty wages with little or no job security from one semester to the next. U.S. universities have been working on the part-time, precarious employment model since at least the 1980s and today about 75% of U.S. faculty work on a contingent basis. But for Canadian universities, that shift has happened in the 21st century. The election of right-wing, free-market fundamentalist politicians – especially since the 2008 Wall Street induced economic collapse – has only quickened the pace of turning faculty into education piece-workers.

In some ways, growing use of contingent faculty members in Canadian universities should cause adjuncts across the U.S. to scream out pledges of solidarity to their northern brothers and sisters. After all, the future of labor in higher education might just be on the other side of their southern border. However, faculty and graduate students in Canada are unionized and have a history of going on strike to ensure the integrity of their work and the future of higher of education. The free-market fundamentalists may have all but destroyed higher education in the U.S., but the 10,000 graduate teaching assistants and contract faculty in Toronto, might serve to keep the flames of National Adjunct Walkout Day burning bright. They are also, after all, showing us a different future: a future in which a unionized higher education workforce has the power and guts to stop the wheels of destruction in their tracks.

We will continue to follow this story.


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