CUPE 3902 ups the rhetoric

U of T sessionals still set to strike on Nov. 9


The union representing part-time instructors at U of T has just taken the next step in a complicated dance that may result in yet another major university work disruption. If you’d like to follow all the news as it develops, you can watch for updates at the official strike website. It currently bears the following message:

Monday November 9
Day 1

In the event of a strike, the picket lines will be at the following locations:
-King’s College Entrance, College Street (just west of McCaul)
-Simcoe Hall, Galbraith Entrance (on St. George Street)
-Wellesley underpass, Hart House Circle
-UTSC, Military Trail entrance
-UTM, Mississauga Road entrance

In direct messaging to instructors who may be on strike, the union has some immediate tips, such as clearing out one’s office and making alternative e-mail arrangements in the event that U of T shuts down accounts.

Additionally, if you’d like the university’s own updates on the strike, you can access those here.

We are so many steps into this dance that it’s hard to remember where it started, but at the time 3902 was quick to reassure members that voting for a strike is a strategic consideration and that the union has traditionally not taken a strike mandate as far as an actual work stoppage. It’s entirely true that a strike vote has rarely resulted in a real strike, and that a strong “yes” vote gives the union clout at the bargaining table. But something about the tone of things this time around just makes me feel it in my gut.

So far it’s too early to assign any blame, and if we get as far as an actual strike there will be blame all around. It isn’t my intention to go around pointing fingers. But as someone who does believe in the power and value of organized labour, I’ve got to say that something is fundamentally broken in the post-secondary sector. Rhetoric and posturing seems to have replaced any kind of functional and respectful relationship between employer and union. This is true across the board.

As I wrote in the aftermath of the York strike, labour actions in a post-secondary context must be understood as unique. This isn’t the same thing as garbage collectors or drivetest workers going on strike. There are crossover issues, certainly, but the massive pressures on the rapidly evolving post-secondary system create a special situation. This isn’t simply jockeying over how much of the pie employees will receive. The entire sector is changing, and locating a reasonable benchmark for compensation, benefits, and job security in this context may be all but impossible. In such an unsettled environment, labour strife is all but inevitable.

I wish I had cheerier thoughts. And I hope my sense of the situation is wrong and it resolves quickly and without disruption to classes. But I suspect otherwise. Whether in this instance or in others, there will continue to be nasty and bitter labour disputes in the post-secondary sector for some time to come.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


CUPE 3902 ups the rhetoric

  1. I am a parent of a U of T Student. This proposed work stoppage is unacceptable. I don’t care how bad the CUPE members have it..they have a job which 10% or more of the population of Canada do not. And they have no idea what it is like to be without an income, and trying to find a job in this economy.

    Commercial jobs are disappearing to low wage countries and any information based job is at risk. Any teacher or teaching assistant who thinks they cannot be replaced by someone else using internet technology is very mistaken. All the strikers will do if their demands are unreasonable is hasten the need to implement technology to replace them.

    We are creating a reputation in Ontario that our universities are not reliable as a source of education. York last year, McMaster and possibly University of Toronto this year. International Students will avoid Ontario Universities. Those from out of province will go elsewhere. Local students will look to more ‘reliable’ sources of education elsewhere. . York had a big drop of students applying to their university after the strike last year. Is there no lesson to be learned here?

    The Government of Ontario has $24.7 Billion in deficit and asking government employees to give ‘free days’ because they have not been negatively affected by the recession. In this policial and social climate, the CUPE members are going on strike?

    Asking the Government for more money won’t resonate with anyone. The Students and their parents, in aggregate, are suffering financially with the lack of jobs in the economy. Where is the ‘extra money’ and extra benefits to come from? The membership of this union and their leaders are OUT OF TOUCH with reality.

    I have no objection to people wanting a raise or a better standard of living and negotiating for that. They need to do that with some understanding of the current economy and be reasonable.

    I do object to work stoppage. It ruins the students ability to get the education they paid for.The work stoppage makes the quest for more money and benefits more visible to the world, ruining our Ontario economy’s reputation. The 500,000 Canadians out of work and governments laden with heavy debt, will have no sympathy for strikers.

    I hope this work stoppage can be averted.


  2. Post-secondary education is a canary in the mine. I said this during the York strike and I hold to it. No one _really_ cares about education (Harris’ cuts and the widespread opposition to early childcare education are good examples) and it’s easy to let a bunch of “over-educated” fancy pant academics bear the brunt of your rage towards the economic situation. But, first they went for the academics, then they went for the autoworkers, then they went for garbage workers and other public employees. Where will they stop unless someone takes a stand.
    As many recent articles point out, simply having a job is not enough, particularly if you’re underemployed, uninsured, or taking a huge pay cut to just get a job, any job, so you or your kids can go to school, or even just to eat.
    I was a TA during the York strike and it decimated my personal health and finances. I’ve had to drop out of school without completing my degree, take a full time job, and I was “lucky enough” to be able to restructure some of my bank debt so that it’s almost manageable. I’m not complaining. I’m explaining where I’m at so that what I say next has some context. I still fully believe in most of the reasons why we went on strike: job security (which means not having to reapply for your own job every 4 months -that’s all, not never-get-fired-once-you’re-in-you’re-gold security), health care, a decent living wage.
    How many people with Master’s degrees would agree to work for $1500(1000 after tuition)/month? -and that’s only during the school year. during the summer, you’re on your own. I think we need to respect the commitment to education that University sector workers have. They teach your children when they could be working for much higher pay somewhere else .
    Ontario has the least ammount of funding for its universities in ALL OF CANADA. When we could be innovators and leaders, teaching promising innovators and leaders, we are struggling to afford food for ourselves and our children.
    The “my life sucks so you can suck it” argument shouldn’t be the basis for anyone’s opinion about what to do with education, or what to do about anything.

    It’s particularly when things are rough that we need to support each other. Things are rough, for everyone. That’s why everyone should be working to elevate the employment conditions of all Canadians, not just their own. I fully support a U of T strike, but hope to god it doesn’t have to happen.

  3. Intentionally or not you’re confusing part time instructors with TA’s (the majority of whom are grad students). Sorry but a TA position is not comparable to a normal job – it’s simply a way for students to pay some bills on the way through school and gain some experience teaching at the same time.

  4. For any who are unclear, the current issue is only with unit three of CUPE 3902. That is, sessional instructors (those who teach one or more courses and are paid by the course) who are not currently students at U of T. Those who are currently students, even if they also teach on the side, are covered by unit one of the same CUPE local and are not in a strike position.

    This is a complex topic at the best of times. I think if anyone gets their language a bit muddled that needs to be understood. Additionally, the York strike in the recent past, which was CUPE local 3903, makes it even more confusing. That bargaining unit is comprised of all sessional instructors, and TAs and RAs, etc. lumped into one unit. So they all went on strike together. That isn’t even possible at U of T.

    For anyone interested in organized labour, the very way the bargaining unit is defined can have a long-reaching effect on all subsequent negotiations and events. This is one very real illustration of that fact.

  5. Jeff’s recent comment is correct insofar as UofT is concerned. 3903 (York), however, is not made up of a single unit: like 3902 (UofT) it is comprised of three units with three different contracts which all expired at or around the same time.

    As for the comments by Adele, I have little sympathy for someone who would rather have 1200 poorly-paid, marginalised workers continue to be used as a scapegoat for the university’s “economic crisis” just so that her child isn’t inconvenienced.

    Real inconvenience is not knowing if you’ll be working in four months.

    Real inconvenience is being paid a flat rate far bellow what is offered by other, poorer universities within the same city, for a course whose commitment begins before, and extends beyond, the actual length of the contract.

    Real inconvenience is having to cobble together a living by rushing from university to university across southern Ontario, not because you’re unqualified nor because the work isn’t there, but because being hired is dependent almost entirely on the whim of the department Chair.

    Real inconvenience is spending a decade or more of research and study and finding out that even though jobs are available, they’ve deliberately been casualised by a series of governments bent on undermining our public eductation system.

    Real inconvenience is the fact that your child — who as you note “paid for” their eductation — is not getting the education they paid for; not because of sessional demands for a less unjust contract, but instead because the university does not allocate the extra resources garnered from tuition to the people who provide the service that universities purport to offer.

    The elephant in the room of the current negotiations with sessional lecturers at the UofT is the upcoming binding arbitration that will settle outstanding contractual and wage issues between the university and it’s tenured faculty. The issue here is not about the university’s inability to raise the average wage of a sessional lecturer from $15000 to $16000 (per year); it’s about breaking a wage pattern established at the university over the course of the last year so that the admin doesn’t have to pony up to profs. Everything else is a ruse.

  6. Hmmm. After doing some belated research into the matter, I stand corrected. It is true that York actually has three bargaining units – broken down along vaguely similar lines to U of T though not identical. On that point then, I give York kudos for maintaining a calendar of agreements that has all three expiring at once, and for insisting on all-or-none bargaining arrangements. I mean “kudos” in the sense that it’s powerful for the union, if not conducive to easy agreements. In any event, at U of T the collective agreements are on very different calendars, with unit one currently settled until May 2011. Unit two is actually a very specialized unit, governing only folks a Victoria College, and the information isn’t online regarding when it expires.

    Along these lines, I’ll note that while CUPE 3902 has declared that 30% of all classes are taught by sessionals (I’ll assume that’s accurate) that number almost certainly includes current graduate students who are teaching classes – and that would be unit one. So while there’s a fair number of classes in danger of disruption at this time, it isn’t quite as high as 30%. I haven’t seen anyone actually isolate the number thus far.

  7. Jeff,

    The 3902 Unit 2 CA is online at the union’s website. It is currently expired and it is my understanding that bargaining will begin after Unit 3 is settled. I’ve been led to believe that the since Unit 2 covers both TAs and sessionals at Vic, the history has been to wait until the main issues are hashed out at the UofT proper and then take those as the basis for an agreement tailored to suit Vic’s particular circumstances.

    Also, my contacts at the union have informed me that the 30% figure does not include student course instructors in Unit 1.

  8. Well, if you want to tell me that the most current agreement for unit two expired over three years ago (August 31, 2006 according to the document) then I’ll believe you. Well, technically it auto-renews for one year periods about that, but that’s essentially the same thing. It’s an invitation to bargain again. Anyway, I don’t think an agreement that’s been up for renegotiation for over three years is going to cause disruptions any time soon. That’s the information I referred to as not present. The website refers to a 2005-2006 agreement and suggests that a new one will be available “soon.” Not sure what “soon” means in a context of years, but it’s at least a little unclear.

    Regarding the 30% debate – I’d want to see that in writing before I believe it. No offense, but it’s common logic to pick the most favourable figures to make your point. When CUPE 3902 wants to emphasize U of T’s increasing reliance on part-time instructors they trot out this 30% figure. I’ve never seen any mention of it excluding current graduate students – and that includes references that have nothing to do with this potential strike. You want to tell me they’ve intentionally low-balled themselves on that figure, rather than driving home their point with as much force as possible? I find that unlikely enough that I’d require proof before I believe it.

  9. Jeff,

    I agree that the impact of negotiating with Unit 2 would be minimal relative to the other Units in 3902. I can assure you, however, that notice of intent to bargain has been served to Vic.

    Regarding student course instructors, 3902 has been very specific in their literature that they are referring to sessionals alone. It seems to me that part of their goal has been to draw attention to the fact that students do not know who is teaching them — i.e the slogan “not all your professors are ‘professors'” — and that they want to differentiate sessionals from other instructors (tenured or tenure-track profs; multi-year, salaried contract instructors; grad students) in order to highlight their particular circumstances. To intentionally include non U3 instructors in this number would seem counterintuitive if differentiation is the union’s goal.

    Although I’m sure your correct that references do not explicitly say that grad course instructors are excluded, I’m also quite certain that everything I’ve come across (http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Canadian-Union-Of-Public-Employees-Cupe-1066290.html or http://pr-usa.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=285394&Itemid=29, or any of the reports in the student papers for example) has made clear reference that the group in question is represented by 3902, Unit 3.

    Incidentally, 3902 does not have a monopoly on representing contract faculty at the UofT. CLTAs (Contractually Limited Term Appointments, salaried instructors who handle four or more full-year courses) are rep. by UTFA, so if I am correct that 3902 figures refer only to U3 members (or even if you are right and it does include student instructors), I would suspect that the 30% figure may actually be higher, especially at the satellite campuses which rely heavily on non-tenured instructors to deliver lecturers, since I cannot imagine that the administration would share info on other employee groups with the union.

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