“We’ve been trying to negotiate a fair contract for eight months,” said James Nugent, Chief Spokesperson for the bargaining team. “Our goal, shared by all of the education workers, students and faculty who have come out here today, is simply to improve the learning and teaching conditions here at the university.”
Amidst their incessant chanting interspersed with brief speeches from concerned undergraduate students and troubled TAs, members of the crowd held high various banners sporting passionate pleas of “defending our education.” The innovative centrepiece of the demonstration, a helium powered kite of protest, could often be seen bobbing back and forth in front of the windows of the Governing Council chamber. “When you're at an undemocratic university, you're forced to use balloon banners,” remarked Ashleigh Ingle, an event coordinator and member of CUPE's bargaining team.
Even though the rally was mainly in support of CUPE 3902 and U of T's TAs in the face of treatment they perceived as grossly unfair by the administration, the outrage of the crowd was also directed towards the allegedly shady procedures of Governing Council meetings. News that the majority of the council members overseeing the university is comprised of sharply dressed CEOs incited the crowd to shout “Shame!” repeatedly.
In addition to raising awareness for the plight of graduate student existence at U of T, five undergraduates offered to deliver copies of a letter in support of CUPE signed by over 1000 of their fellow students into the council meeting. Katie Mazer, Internal Liaison Officer for CUPE 3902, read aloud the letter, explaining that “[we] got 1000 signatures not for lack of support, but for lack of labour.” Such support was solicited only at Sidney Smith Hall in the few hours before the rally. Soon thereafter, more signatures arrived from UTSC.
Several campus police officers guarding the doors to Simcoe Hall repeatedly denied access to the undergraduates. When the undergraduates were finally admitted some time later, it was soon reported that they were blocked from entering the council chamber, and the crowd roared again.
Attendance figures for the demonstration vary. CUPE's official press release claims that over 1000 students, faculty, and U of T contract workers were present, while Ingle estimates a more modest turnout of approximately 400.
One of the notoriously large lecture groups exiting nearby Convocation Hall -- an embodiment of the declining quality of undergraduate education from unwieldy class and tutorial sizes and one of the reasons for which the crowd had gathered -- offered the opportunity to swell the numbers of the crowd, yet nearly every passerby fell silent. Regardless, pledges of solidarity by Canadian Federation of Students Ontario President Sandy Hudson and other union representatives kept spirits high, and CUPE will return to the bargaining table early next week to continue their negotiations with the U of T administration.
What went on inside the Governing Council meeting, by Geoff Vendeville
“Let them in! Let them in! Let them in!” the crowd shouted. The five students who volunteered to deliver a letter of support for CUPE 3902 to the Governing Council were told to wait outside Simcoe Hall while the GC wrapped up its closed session. A tense half an hour later, campus security allowed the undergrads to enter.
Inside the building, the students huddled together and discussed strategy. “We don’t want to be disruptive,” said Johanna, one of the undergrads. The last time she attended a rally outside a Governing Council meeting, students were not allowed in. “I’m surprised they let us in this time. Their usual policy is just to shut the doors.”
After the closed session ended, the students and other guests were invited into the council chamber. In his report to the GC, President Naylor gave an update on negotiations with CUPE 3902. He said he and the Council were disappointed that the union had rejected the administration’s last offer, and that the final round of bargaining would take place on Feb. 22 and 23 before the strike scheduled for Feb. 24. “If there is a strike, the administration will not lock out the TAs,” he said.
Naylor added that the Faculty Association had expressed concern about the state of negotiations with CUPE, and recognized professors’ “divided obligations” - to the administration and to graduate students, who work as teaching and research assistants. The university provost, Professor Cheryl Misak, will address the faculty’s concerns in an upcoming meeting with the association.
After Naylor concluded his report, the undergraduate representative on the Governing Council, Maria Pilar Galvez, announced undergrads’ support for CUPE. “We hope negotiations with CUPE 3902 are being conducted in good faith,” she said. As she spoke, Johanna and the other messengers passed out copies of the letter of support and filed out of the room.
By the time the meeting came to a close, the protest had winded down. A BMW parked in front of the building had been decorated with CUPE pamphlets and a discarded sign from the demonstration (saying “Hey U of T, your tutorials are SO big”).
As the day’s events had shown, however, the struggle between CUPE and the university administration is far from settled.
.Additional CUPE 3902 coverage:
U of T's TAs bare all [February 9, 2012]
Students, faculty pressure province to slash tuition fees. [February 2, 2012]
TAs appeal to undergrads for support in bargaining process [January 19, 2012]
CUPE drives a hard bargain [November 24, 2011]
Click here to view the letter over 1000 undergradute students signed in support of CUPE 3902 on Thursday afternoon.
Click here to view the pamphlet distributed by CUPE 3902, which delineates their timeline of negotiations with the administration, why you should care, and how you can support them.