CUPE drives a hard bargain Nana Arbova

In a move to accelerate a bargaining process that has been stalled since July, Unit 1 Members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 unanimously supported a call for a strike vote. CUPE 3902 is the trade union representing Teaching Assistants, Lab Demonstrators, and other contract academic staff at the University of Toronto.

Polls opened to members across U of T campuses last Tuesday, November 22. If the strike vote passes, it will authorize the Union Executive to call a strike if the university administration keeps refusing to address key issues presented by the Unit 1 Bargaining Team in their Collective Agreement.

The previous three-year CUPE 3902 Unit 1 Collective Agreement (CA) lapsed at the end of April, which signaled the start of a new bargaining process aimed at solving a number of problems identified by the Union. These problems include inadequate funding packages for TAs, poor allocation of fellowship money, and the growing size of undergraduate tutorials and labs.

Chief Spokesperson for Unit 1 Bargaining Committee James Nugent explained that the real value of the funding package has decreased over the past few years. The package has been frozen at $15,000, despite the increased cost of living in Toronto and general inflation. In addition, Nugent said that taxable research assistantships are now being included as part of the package. In the past, these positions could serve to bring in extra money for graduate students; with the current structure of funding packages, this is no longer the case.

Another problem addressed in the draft proposals is the length of time for which the funding package is available to graduate students. “The university has organized a situation in which programs of study take, on average, six years to complete, but funding packages only last for four or five years,” said Nugent. This often leaves graduate students in financially precarious positions. Nugent explained that the Doctoral Completion Grant (DCG) had acted as a rebate on tuition, providing a safety net for students whose funding had been cut short. Last year, the Provost unilaterally cancelled this grant. According to Nugent, this action was taken without consulting any boards, including the CUPE. The administration has thus far declined to provide any explanation for their choice to cut the grant.

At the heart of these issues is what Nugent described as the “constant erosion of the quality of education at U of T.” In a recent study conducted by the Globe and Mail on student satisfaction at Canadian universities, U of T ranked among the lowest across the board. Nugent chalked this up to what he called “unwieldy tutorial sizes” and gross understaffing. In some departments, tutorial sizes have reached a stunning 500 students. The new CA calls for a hard cap of 50, and requires that one TA be present for every 20 students in a lab.

“We’re teachers who care about good pedagogy and good education,” commented Nugent, who is a TA and student course instructor in the Department of Geography. Many graduate students echo his sentiments, and have voiced concerns about the effectiveness of their teaching as class size grows. “No matter how many students you’re assigned to teach, you’re paid the same,” said anthropology MA student and TA, Cindy Ochieng. She emphasized the need for better training programs and more support for teaching assistants, which is another issue raised by the bargaining team. Cindy added, “Some of the issues addressed [by CUPE] are aimed at preserving what we already have. Others are a move towards having a better experience for students and TAs.”

Nugent explained, “If the University of Toronto wants to remain a world class institution, it can’t forget that it’s not simply a research institution; it’s also a place where students come to learn. This should be a priority.” It is hoped that the strike vote will send a strong message of membership support to the university administration and spark productive negotiations with CUPE 3902.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Union calls for more funding, fewer students
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