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Teaching assistants at McMaster University have been walking the picket line for more than two weeks, in a strike that now threatens to disrupt final exams.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Teaching assistants at McMaster University have been walking the picket line for more than two weeks, in a strike that now threatens to disrupt final exams.

It’s one of a number of labour conflicts on Canadian campuses that have come to a head as employees, conscious that many universities fared well financially during the pandemic, seek wage gains to keep up with soaring inflation.

In February and March, four universities had faculty strikes, and last month a three-week TA and sessional instructor strike at Dalhousie University ended with an agreement on wage increases ranging from 20 to 45 per cent. A strike deadline has been set this week at the University of Toronto, where TAs and contract instructors are seeking better pay and pathways to permanent jobs.

At McMaster’s campus in Hamilton, picketers have been stopping cars as they enter campus, delaying traffic and trying to explain to undergraduates the reasoning behind the strike.

The TA union says wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. Members are seeking a raise of 15 per cent over three years, with a 9-per-cent jump in year one. The university has offered 9 per cent over three years.

“What’s at stake is the affordability of grad school at McMaster,” said Chris Fairweather, a PhD student, TA and president of the TA union, CUPE Local 3906. “Over the last 10 to 15 years TAs have lost a quarter of our purchasing power to inflation.”

McMaster University provost Susan Tighe said the offer on the table is fair. It would see hourly wages rise to $49.11 for graduate students. She said she’s waiting for a counter-offer from the union.

TAs make about $11,500 a year. Their earnings are capped by a strict hours limit, according to the union.

Professors have been asked to devise alternative plans for final exams, which TAs would ordinarily help grade. Those could include evaluations that don’t require as much time to mark, Dr. Tighe said.

“Students can expect to receive marks. There could be some minor delays, but we fully anticipate that everything is going to run the way that professors and instructors have outlined in their contingency planning,” Dr. Tighe said. “We want to get back to the table and get this resolved.”

Dr. Tighe added that, by the university’s calculation, as many as 45 per cent of unionized TAs have continued to work during the strike. She said that suggests they don’t support the union’s position. Mr. Fairweather said many TAs are international students who fear they could jeopardize their status in Canada if they stop earning enough to pay their rent and tuition.

Teaching assistants are crucial to the operation of a university because they make large classes possible, Mr. Fairweather said. They are typically, but not exclusively, graduate students who partly fund their own studies by working with professors and handling tasks such as marking, responding to student queries and running tutorials.

The university’s financial position is also a sticking point for the TAs. Far from struggling during the pandemic, McMaster posted surpluses of $232-million in 2020-2021, and $52-million in 2021-2022. Other universities also fared well. Statistics Canada reported earlier this year that universities posted $7.3-billion in surpluses in 2020-21, thanks largely to investment income. That was the highest number since the agency began recording the data two decades ago.

Dr. Tighe said surpluses are not readily accessible for wage increases.

The impact of the strike has so far been mitigated, because the university has encouraged professors to alter their assessment plans and timetables. But that may not be possible for final exams, which are set to begin in the next week or so.

Karen Robson, a professor in the department of sociology, said exams in her second-year class of more than 120 students won’t be graded if the university and the union can’t come to an agreement. For students who need the grades to apply to graduate school, that could cause complications.

Simranjeet Singh, president of the McMaster Students Union, said the strike has had a massive impact and caused students a great deal of stress. Some have had assignments cancelled and will have larger portions of their grades determined by final exams, while others have had exams cancelled entirely, he said.

“Many are in a situation where they have less support in their education, something they deserve as students at McMaster,” Mr. Singh said.