Canada’s two largest universities, York University and the University of Toronto, have been hit by strikes simultaneously, causing academic chaos for more than 100,000 undergraduate students who are in the last weeks of their academic year.
According to Louise Brown of the Toronto Star, York University was forced to suspend all classes on Tuesday, as well as all exams and academic activities. On Monday night 3,700 of York’s teaching assistants and contract professors turned down an offer concerning wage hikes and job security after the urging of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) leaders. Of the 1,100 members who attended the meeting, 71% voted not to accept the proposal.
“We have directed our bargaining team to go back to the table (Tuesday),” said CUPE 3903 Chair Faiz Ahmed. “I am confident that this is going to be wrapped up … the university knows we’re not that far apart.”
At the University of Toronto, 6,000 teaching assistants walked off the job Friday night, causing tutorial cancellations, lab closings, called off classes, and ungraded assignments. Just six years ago the same union organized the longest strike in Canadian history at an English-language university and there were no classes there for three months.
One of the complaints is that contract faculty, who teach 64% of York’s undergraduate classes, often receive their contracts at the last minute which shortens their preparation time and creates job instability.
At U of T, contract faculty struck a tentative deal with the school, but teaching assistants are still striking. Full-time master’s and doctoral students who work part-time for the university to help pay for their degrees receive the minimum TA package, which is $23,400, with $15,000 tied to work they do for the school. The university has offered a $2 raise in hourly pay and a reduction of one hour to the number of hours a TA can be asked to work each week, but CUPE Chairman Erin Black said that 1,000 members rejected putting the deal to a vote last week because it did not include an increase of the overall $15,000 minimum.
Graduate students explain that the problem is the insufficient overall funding, not insufficient wage. U of T has anted up a funding package made up of grants and scholarships, unmatched at any university collective agreement in Canada, writes Simona Chiose of The Globe and Mail. The university is staying open and students have been told that they can choose not to cross picket lines, but will be held responsible for class material. At York, non-tenured teaching faculty voted to join their colleagues on the picket line.
The key issues between the administration and the York union are job security for contract faculty and tuition costs for international graduate students. CBC News-Toronto says that many students are concerned about exams and possible extensions of class time, but the majority seem supportive of the striking workers. Svetlana Davidchuk who is in the sociology program, says:
“Everyone has a right to fight for a better life. If this is the only way they can do it, I guess they have the right. Still, I’d rather go to the lectures and tutorials that I paid for.”