Possibility of TA strike at UTM remains

Please note, this article was published last January 2009. For the latest news on the potential U of T Strike on November 9, 2009, visit themedium.ca/strike.

With the appointment of a conciliator from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, the University of Toronto (U of T) and CUPE 3902 will resume negotiations on January 20, in the hope of reaching a new contract agreement.

Both parties agree that there has been good progress made on a number of issues, and that there are only a few small sticking points that are preventing a final settlement.

Laurie Stephens, director of Media Relations and Stakeholder Communications at U of T, explains that such a move is not unusual at all, and that this is a standard negotiation [which] has been proceeding normally. Stephens points out that the
appointment of a Provincial mediator does not represent a breakdown or interruption of discussions, and the only rea-
son negotiations did not proceed last month was because of the winter break.

We’re in contract negotiations with a valued group of employees and we’re hoping we can reach a fair and equitable settlement, Stephens adds, declining a request to offer details relating to the concessions being asked or offered by the university, citing the binding confidentiality rules of the negotiationprocess.

So what does CUPE consider to be a fair and equitable settlement ? According to CUPE 3902 media repre- sentative Rebecca Sanders, if the employer continues to refuse our pro- posals for eliminating the burden of private healthcare, for better childcare benefits, and for protecting and improving tuition assistance, that would indicate that they are not interested in bargaining fairly.

Both Stephens and Sanders have indicated that a strike would be a veryunfortunate outcome, and both insist that every possible way to avoid this will be pursued. However, the members of CUPE 3902, which represents contract employees such as Teaching Assistants across the University of Torontos three campuses, have instructed their bargaining team not to accept any concessions from the previous contract agreement. Thus, taking into account cost-of-living and tuition increases, CUPE must find a way to maintain the current pay and benefit levels that their members currently enjoy.

Rather than accepting these proposals, the U of T bargaining team has apparently been insisting that the union make concessions, such as the elimination of a Tuition Assistance Fund (TAF) established in the last agreement. When we talk about concessions in labour negotiations, we are referring to rollbacks and takeaways that leave our members worse off than before, explains Sanders. CUPE is not asking U of T to make any concessions, since our proposals do not rollback some benefit they previously had.

When [U of T] agree to more paid training, they are getting better prepared teachers; when they agree to release time, they are ensuring their own grad students can succeed, [which is] something they want, Sanders declares. When they agree to smaller tutorial sizes, they are agreeing to improve the quality of education at the university, which is entirely in their interest [and] if they were to agree to improve equity through better childcare and UHIP assistance, they would simply be implementing their  own rhetorical commitments. Therefore, Sanders notes, it is U of T that has the power to move these discussions forward and not the union, which is only trying to hold on to their current level of compensation.

They have the power to say yes and no to our proposals [whereas] we only have the power to ask, Sanders concludes. I don’t want people to get the wrong impression that the union is somehow responsible for any potential deadlock in negotiations, which may still result in a strike in February if an agreement cannot be reached.

Although both U of T and CUPE state that they would not like to see a strike happen, it is hard to say whether or not an agreement will ultimately be reached. The union is, as Sanders notes, not able to accept any concessions, and has made a number of proposals that it considers mutually beneficial to both sides. The university refused to reveal anything currently under discussion with CUPE, so it is impossible to know what outcome they would be willing to accept.

It is interesting to note that U of T wants an agreement that is equitable whereas CUPE wants an agreement that promotes equity . This slight distinction in language is subtle, yet potentially significant. The university would seem to want an outcome that is equal between the two bargaining sides — sug- gesting that the union must be prepared to make concessions if it wishes to receive anything in return — while the union is seeking greater equality and fairness for their own members in relation to other employees at the university.

As Sanders noted in last weeks article, Strike at UTM in February? the members of CUPE 3902 are already the poorest employees of the university, living well below the poverty line [so] if cuts need to be made, they should not target people who can barely get by as is.

CUPEs efforts to find equity within U of T may be contradictory to the universitys idea of what an equitable agreement will look like. Despite words from both sides suggesting otherwise, the possibility of a February strike still looms over UTM.


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