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U of T teaching assistants on strike after rejecting deal

Teaching assistants at the University of Toronto have rejected a tentative deal reached by their union and are officially on strike.

About 1,000 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3902 attended a Friday afternoon meeting to decide whether or not the tentative deal would be sent to a unit-wide ratification vote, and 90 per cent of attendees voted against it.

“We don’t have hard numbers,” said Erin Black, chair of CUPE 3902’s executive committee. “It wasn’t necessary to physically count the hands because it was so very clear.”

Picket lines are expected to start on Monday. The strike will effectively shut down tutorials, labs, and some classes in their entirety for thousands of students at Canada’s largest university, in all three of its campuses — downtown, Scarborough and Mississauga.

“Tutorials, and lab demonstrations will cease running,” said Black. “A percentage of the membership are instructors in their own right, and those classes will cease running entirely — not just the tutorial component.”

“We also have invigilators who will no longer be invigilating exams,” she added.

TAs also do much of the marking of undergraduate tests and assignments, which increase at this time of year in the final, critical weeks of the academic year.

Hundreds of the university’s 6,000 teaching assistants turned out Friday afternoon to hear details of a deal their union had reached early Friday morning — then voted against it, prompting a flurry of tweets “We’re on strike!” Notice of the rejection was immediately posted on the union’s Facebook page.

Presuming TAs do walk off the job starting Monday, it’s not clear whether other faculty members — tenured professors or contract professors — would honour the picket lines. The 1,000 contract professors also belong to CUPE 3902 but they reached a deal with the university last week.

The U of T administration has said that in the event of a strike by TAs, classes will continue, with adjustments made if necessary to the way courses are delivered and marked.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news and media relations at the U of T, expressed her disappointment at news of the strike, saying the university believed its latest offer had met the criteria of being a “fair and reasonable” renewal collective agreement.

CUPE3902 had posted a message on its website saying both sides reached the agreement just hours after the union’s midnight strike deadline.

However, the bargaining team’s decision was overruled by members at the meeting Friday afternoon at the university’s Convocation Hall.

The last time the U of T’s teaching assistants walked off the job was in 2000 when they were on the picket lines for three and a half weeks.

CUPE 3902 was seeking a wage hike to bring the $ 15,000 stipend members receive closer to the $ 23,000 low-income cut-off amount that Statistics Canada sets as a living wage for single workers in big cities.

“(Members) were most dissatisfied (the tentative agreement) did not address what they perceived to be the core issue of increases to the graduate funding package model,” said Black, adding, “As a result, they would continue to exist quite below the poverty line, so they want to make their voice heard about how unacceptable that is on the picket line now.”

“On average, a TA (teaching assistant) makes 30 per cent below a Toronto living wage,” said Black in a YouTube message about the bargaining issues.

Yet “TAs, sessional lecturers and course instructors do 60 per cent of the teaching, but for only 3.5 per cent of the university’s budget . . . We are the ones who bridge the gap between teaching and understanding but the U of T is making it difficult for us to do our jobs.”

At York, 3,700 teaching assistants and contract faculty in CUPE 3903 will strike Tuesday if talks over the weekend fail to produce a deal there.

Many undergraduate students at U of T, especially those in upper years, are concerned about the impact the strike will have on their expected graduation dates.

“As a student it’s not an ideal situation, especially if you are in need of specific courses in order to graduate,” says Najiba Sardar, vice-president equity for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

However, Sardar continues, it is important for students to stand in solidarity with TAs, whose “working conditions essentially translate to our learning conditions.”

UTSU president Yolen Bollo-Kamara echoes this sentiment.

“It’s unfair that the people doing 60 per cent of the teaching at U of T are making less than poverty-level wages,” she says. “I implore the university to negotiate in good faith with CUPE 3902 and offer them decent compensation for the work they’re doing.”