November 27, 2015

UofT’s strike in retrospective: How students and labor pushed for unity

Zach Morgenstern

From February 27 to March 26 of 2015 UofT’s CUPE 3902 Unit 1, a union which represents UofT student-course-instructors (most prominently teaching assistants (TAs)) went on strike. The Union, which bargained with a strike-vote mandate it had held since November, ultimately settled for arbitration. Arbitrator William Kaplan has since ruled in UofT’s favor, allowing for a deal the union had previously voted down, which does not guarantee funding increases for individual graduate students, to be implemented.  Despite this being a far from perfect result for the month long campaign, it has to be said that CUPE 3902’s approach to the strike was commendable, at least when it came to student-TA relations.

On January 28, representatives from 3902 units 1 and 2 (contract faculty) held a townhall for students explaining the potential ramifications of a strike. Simply holding the meeting meant a lot, as the units were able to argue that in doing so they had already provided students more information than administration. Indeed, while the union sent students FAQs about their struggle and about the strike through the University of Toronto Students’ Union on January 26, a similar communication was not sent out by UofT until February 23-shortly before the strike began.

Having already presented themselves as the more reasonable side in negotiations, the union were able to build on that narrative in explaining their grievances to students. These grievances include the fact that TA funding packages leave them below the poverty line, that TAs are not compensated for work they do outside of their TAing hours, and that TAs have to pay tuition even after they have stopped taking courses - essentially they get an $8000 library card and gym membership. Unit 2 (who did not ultimately vote to go on strike), noted that they lack job security and adequate healthcare benefits, and despite doing 35% of UofT’s teaching are compensated with just 2% of the teaching budget.

Perhaps most important to the TAs narrative, however, was UofT’s administration’s refusal to bargain with them. As of that townhall less than a month before the strike, UofT had only agreed to two bargaining meetings before the strike deadline for them and CUPE 3902 to settle their vast differences. After the strike started the University administration continued not to bargain. This allowed the union and its supporters to continue to push the true narrative that the university was not acting in good faith. Another point that drew anger from workers and students was the high salaries of UofT administrators, most notably asset manager William Moriarty who’s salary was raised to $937 000 just as the strike ended.

Throughout the strike 3902 maintained support from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and Arts and Science Student Union as well as various academic (not necessarily political) unions including the Classics, Peace, Conflict & Justice, and Women & Gender Studies student unions. The fact that UofT refused to bargain made it an easy issue for UTSU to get involved in.

By (rightly) arguing that UofT administration was responsible for the strike the UTSU could argue they were justified in holding townhalls with and attending rallies with the TAs. In many ways 2014-15 was not an easy year for the UTSU executive, which saw quite a few of its meetings descend into polarizing arguments, often over procedural issues. Despite this, the UTSU executive were able to present their position on the TA strike to the union’s politically divided board of directors without receiving any public complaints.

Fairly early in the strike the UTSU organized a student rally to end the strike (with the implication being that ending the strike would mean UofT giving in to the TA demands). The rally drew an impressive crowd and some impressive speakers though it perhaps suffered from the flaw that there was no way for observers to be sure it was indeed undergraduate students and not strikers who made up the rally.

Later in the strike, an open group called “Students First” was formed. Students First organized general assemblies outside of UofT’s main Arts and Science building, that sought to unite the cause of undergraduates and the striking union. Students First organized a “walkout to end the strike,” which led many students to rally in front of the University’s administration building. While the walkout drew a large crowd of undergraduates, and proved a great opportunity for many to learn alternate words to the union music classic “Solidarity Forever” it was not without its disappointments.

In order to walk out to support the strike, I and quite a number of others who did not have class, joined a giant lecture and walked out when a UTSU executive making a class announcement declared it was time. I was disappointed to see most of the room did not (immediately at least) rise to the call, and couldn’t help but wonder if most students who walked out were actually, like me, not actual students in the lecture. More concerning, however, was by this point the UTSU and ASSU began to receive political flack for their position with an increasing number of internet users arguing that in calling for students to walk out of class, and support the strikers in general the UTSU were “playing politics” and not representing the interests of their constituents.

The situation got worse as the UTSU released a survey asking students to report experiences they’d had with scabbing staff. Numerous critics of the survey reportedly used it as opportunities to make aggressive, sexist comments targeted at a particular UTSU executive. The lesson of this, it seemed, was that while the TAs had grievances that were too obviously true for moderate-right-wing students to side against them publically, the semi-anonymity of the internet allowed vitriolic, reactionary opinions to thrive. Indeed some of the most vitriolic anti-TA positions were found on the facebook page “UofT Confessions”, which allows students to post anonymously. Here anonymous “students” repeatedly railed about the TAs relatively high hourly wage, ignoring the fact that since the beginning of the strike, the union and its supporters had made it clear that that the hourly wage was insignificant given the limited amount of hours TAs get compensated before.

The UTSU were able to justify their support for the strike thanks in part to the University’s refusal to bargain with TAs. Unfortunately, the University’s obvious weakness may have in fact been a slyly played strength. The longer the strike went on, and the more mediocre offers the unions had the chance to reject, the greater the chance there was for students to grow impatient with their TAs. Similarly, the longer the TAs striked, the more their financial resources shrank, making it harder for them to dispense strike pay. This forced the most in-need TAs to consider breaking the strike, and gave TAs who had union cynical-politics to begin with reason to feel justified in scabbing.

There’s what is perhaps a myth on the left that the failure of movements is always the fault, in some way, of their organizers. It has to be acknowledged that in the case of the CUPE 3902 strike that may not (at least to a reasonable degree) be the case. CUPE 3902 reps made a strong effort to spread the message to students that together they, and not administration, were UofT. Unfortunately, there are plenty of liberal-conservative voices at UofT that were going to reject this logic no matter what. Therefore, there is no easy prescription that Students First could have taken to propel the strikers to victory. The positive lessons of this strike, ie the importance of swift and repeated communication and engagement, should be remembered and built upon in future course instructor strikes and other relevant social movements.

Students First continues to operate. Their most recent event was an equity training workshop aimed at student activists, and the group’s short term plans include organizing events that discuss neoliberalism and the university. The group unfortunately lacks the visibility it had during the strike, but if it can recover some semblance of its base at its peak it has the potential to become one of the most prominent and radical student organizations UofT has seen in quite a while.

This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles across Canada. Find out more and subscribe today!

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