In Challenge to the System, 10,000 Graduate Teachers Strike Against Toronto Schools

Striking university employees brave wintry weather during their picket against York University in Toronto, Canada. (Photo: CUPE 3903)

In Challenge to the System, 10,000 Graduate Teachers Strike Against Toronto Schools

"We are striving to turn back a system that’s keeping contract faculty strung along on short-term, low-paid, precarious employment contracts," declared union chair

Taking a stand against a higher education labor system that perpetuates unfair and unstable work conditions, 10,000 teaching assistants and contract faculty at Canada's two largest universities are entering their second week of strike.

At issue is what the union says is the "normalization of precarious contract teaching," where little value is given to workers who are increasingly charged with more and more responsibility, though have little job security, benefits and are trapped by maximum wage laws.

The strike will impact roughly 100,000 university students.

Initially called on February 27, word that the strike would continue came Monday evening after union leaders announced that the 3,700 members of the local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, or CUPE, representing teaching assistants and contract faculty at Toronto's York University, voted to reject a tentative agreement between the union and the school. Meanwhile, negotiations between CUPE 3902, representing 6,000 Toronto University staff members, have reportedly stalled.

"[W]e refuse to accept that low-paid, insecure and precarious employment are increasingly the norm at York University," said Faiz Ahmed, chair of CUPE 3903, in a statement announcing the strike. "We are striving to turn back a system that's keeping contract faculty strung along on short-term, low-paid, precarious employment contracts--in some cases for a decade or longer--with no security or stability."

It is estimated that more than half of all undergraduates in Canada are taught by contract, also known as adjunct, faculty while in the United States such employees compromise a full 70 percent of college educators, according to a recent report (pdf) from the Delphi Project.

The decision to strike was made just days after adjunct professors across the U.S. and Canada held an international walkout day. Meanwhile, pledges of solidarity for the striking Canadian workers continue to come from students as well as their tenured peers.

The strikes at the two schools occurred in rapid succession. On February 27, the 6,000 members of CUPE 3902 voted overwhelming to reject an offer from the University of Toronto and pickets commenced on March 2.

"Our members have spoken overwhelmingly. They have said we are poor, precarious, and we need an increase in our standard of living," said CUPE 9302 chair Erin Black. The consensus of the membership, Black added, is that "people felt disrespected by U of T administration, and they require compensation which reflects the high standard of instruction our members provide."

Just three days later, members of CUPE 3903 commenced their strike against York University.

As CUPE 3902 member Christina Turner noted in a Rabble blog post last week, mainstream media coverage of the strike has misrepresented the demands of the striking workers.

"Yes, TA work is part-time. But it is part-time work undertaken by full-time students with the understanding that it provide us with job training as academics, and help us pay our bills while we complete our dissertations," Turner writes. "The University requires graduate students in order to maintain its status as a world-class research institution. They have a responsibility to ensure that their graduate students are able to live at a basic minimum standard while carrying out their research and teaching duties."

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