The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) protesting at York University.

Image Source: CBC News

Why they are striking, who is affected, and what the future holds for university academics across Canada.

By Lianne Ohayon, News & Campus Life Staff Writer 

Over the past few months, teaching assistants (TAs), contract instructors, and maintenance staff have been striking at various post-secondary institutions across Canada, including McGill University and York University. Other institutions, such as the University of Toronto, narrowly averted a strike on March 4th when tentative agreements were reached minutes before midnight on March 3rd. 

Amidst the commotion and clamour of these strikes, numerous questions regarding the strike have arisen. What are these workers striking for? Who has the final say? Who has been affected? And, how will the results of these strikes impact future university policies?

Who is participating in the strikes?

The Canadian Union of Public Employers (CUPE) is the overarching union that a significant portion of educators and maintenance workers are a part of. Though the union largely operates as a holistic body, each academic institution has their own branch of CUPE that bargains for the rights of their workers in the particular university. For example, the CUPE 3902 and 3261 units participating in the strike advocate for over 8000 members at the University of Toronto. CUPE 3903 represents 3000 members at York University. 

Within the particular branch of CUPE, members are partitioned into various units depending on their job position and student status as designated by Collective Agreements. Through this division, workers can claim particular benefits and bargain for better conditions as it directly pertains to their unit. 

CUPE is not the only body that is leading these strikes. At McGill, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) decided to independently strike to gain traction for their cause.

What are the strikes about?

According to official statements from various CUPE representatives and AGSEM leaders, workers are striking for a wage that takes into account the current cost of living in Canada. 

“Workers cannot keep up with the cost of living, grocery prices, the cost of housing, even education itself is getting further out of reach for workers at York University,” CUPE 3903 spokesperson Erin McIntosh said in an interview for CBC News. 

These sentiments were mirrored by the AGSEM at McGill, who are upset with the university administration’s inaction in increasing wages to accommodate the current economic burden of working and studying. 

In addition, workers are asking for more job stability and equitable hiring processes, as well as protections for workers and students in the form of accommodations in and out of the classroom. 

Another key motivation behind the strikes is the desire to enhance the educational experience of students themselves. In an guide to students at York, CUPE 3903 wrote that they are “fighting for smaller classes, a reduced workload, and a guaranteed turnaround time on grading – so you get more one-on-one attention from instructors and TAs with time to devote to your education and return your graded assignments within a guaranteed, defined timeframe.” 

At McGill, university administration has cut down the hours in TA contracts from 180 to 150 hours, making instructors limit their guidance and preventing them from providing the best support to students within their designated roles.

Alongside the present disparities in pay and lack of benefits provided to workers, CUPE’s demands also stem from the implementation of Bill 124 back in 2019. The legislation stifled worker’s pay, capping pay increases at 1% for 1.3 million Ontario-based workers. This stringent price cap prevented one out of six workers from recouping a total of $2.1 billion dollars in wages. The bill was later struck down as unconstitutional in 2022 by the Superior Court of Ontario, but it was only officially repealed this past February.

Who has been affected by the strikes?

As York University’s strike continues for more than a month, it has not gone unnoticed by community members all across campus. Students themselves are feeling discontent with their administration and the strike itself, especially as the end of the school year looms closer and final exam season begins. 

Given the history of strikes at York, students are concerned for how the end of their semester will unfold and if there will be any repercussions for them if they are unable to finish their courses or complete exams. Given numerous course cancellations and a lack of transparency regarding the timeline and alternative methods of completing coursework, nearly 5,000 students have signed a petition to get tuition refunds amidst the strike, as they are unable to take certain classes, eat at some dining institutions, and overall access the amenities they are still paying. 

Some students also don’t agree with the strike, arguing that the workers are asking for too much and that it’s “unfair to students” to be enforcing a strike that completely disrupts the academic environment.

What impact will the strikes have?

Though the York and McGill strikes are currently ongoing, the resolution that the University of Toronto and CUPE came to just minutes before the strike deadline has proposed revolutionary amendments to the way that TAs, contract workers, and maintenance staff are treated. 

Firstly, gradual and significant pay increases were agreed upon for the new contract that’s valid until 2026 (starting with a 9% increase), as well as more significant hourly payment policies and detailed job descriptions. 

Secondly, healthcare plans were substantially expanded to accommodate more union members. 

Thirdly, further provisions were established for an equitable workplace, such as a defined system for workplace harassment reporting. 

Finally, workers are guaranteed more job security and transparency in hiring procedures. 

All in all, these impactful measures improve the quality of life for workers, allowing them to contribute even more significantly to the U of T community. 

Based on the notable strides made at the University of Toronto, hope remains for the strikers at York and McGill. By establishing more secure provisions for contract workers, students and faculty alike can be better supported in the long term. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *