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Quick Strike for Toronto Teaching Assistants Ends With Mixed Success

HAMILTON, CANADA--University of Toronto Teaching Assistants (TAs) resumed work on February 3 after a quick 3-week strike. Unionized as the Canadian Public Employees Union (CUPE) Local 3902, the TAs successfully negotiated for a signing bonus, doubled their dental coverage, and won a seat on a University Task Force that studies the funding situation of graduate students. But despite these gains, the decision to end the strike was only won by a narrow margin and not all union members agree that the deal was a good one.

The TAs had been in a position to strike since December 2. On December 8, they engaged in a legal work slowdown where they continued to perform duties but did not accommodate deadlines imposed by their supervisors or the university. Negotiations between the university and the TAs broke down on January 6 when the union membership rejected what the administration called a "very fair proposal," and on January 7, the TAs walked off the job and the university locked them out.

During a January 31 exploratory meeting called by the Ministry of Labour, a new proposal was hammered out. The successful ratification of this proposal took place on February 2 and 3, ending the 8 weeks of strike action. Had no agreement been reached before February 4, the university threatened to restructure numerous undergraduate courses, "so that the courses may continue in the absence of teaching assistants."

The new agreement runs from September 1, 1999 until August 31, 2001, with the new terms taking effect from the date of ratification. Under the old agreement, the TAs paid over $1000 more for tuition than they received as salary. New signing bonuses ranging from $275 to $525 close this gap slightly, but TAs will still pay more in tuition than they earn. "We had hoped to get stronger language regarding tuition as a cost of living issue, but the university just has different ideas [from those of the TAs] of how it should operate," commented Hayssam Hulays, CUPE 3902 chair. As well, the TAs receive an hourly wage increase to $30.21 this year, and then $30.81 per hour for the 2000-01 academic year. Additionally, the dental plan reimbursement value increased from $150 to $300 annually.

The union also negotiated a seat on the Task Force on Graduate Student Support. Access to this committee, headed by Chancellor and Vice Provost Ian Orchard, allows the union to actively negotiate tuition in all subsequent bargaining sessions. According to Vice Provost David Cook, "the task force's recommendations will be considered by the university administration and brought forward to our governing process. This is a better way of addressing the issues of financial needs for all graduate students, rather than at the bargaining table."

The new agreement is probably not the last word. Only about half of the CUPE membership voted on the agreement recommended by the union executive. Of those that voted, only 62% voted in favor of ratification. Mikael Swayze, staff representative and chief negotiator for CUPE, commented about the deal, "[The agreement] is not what the members asked for, but it was the best [the executive] thought that we could hope for. That's we why recommended it." Hulays echoed that opinion, "It is the best deal that we have been able to get in the last 10 years." Of course, the narrow win means a lot of TAs are still malcontent, according to Swayze: "The 62% ratification vote highlights that there is a major problem with tuition and fees. Unless [the administration] addresses these issues, they will continue to see graduate student revolts. It sends a very strong message to the employer that they have to deal with these issues."

Hulays remains cautious about the terms of the new agreement, "Our contract is up in another year and a half. If the task force does not implement the recommendations, we will likely be out [on the picket lines] again. ... The members need to keep the Task Force accountable."

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