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York University set to resume contract talks, but students fear semester is already at risk

York University and the union representing striking sessional instructors and teaching assistants are set to resume negotiations on Tuesday, but some students, whose programs have been impacted by the breakdown in negotiations, say they fear their semester is already in jeopardy.

Thousands of professors working on temporary contracts and graduate students have been on strike for the past two weeks, making this the second labour disruption at the Toronto university in 36 months.

The university has continued to hold courses as long as they are not taught by striking instructors, but in many faculties more than 60 per cent of classes are suspended.

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On Monday, the Executive Committee of York’s Senate released a list of measures professors can take in courses that have been put on hold, including a revised exam schedule, shortening the term by one week and changes in the weight of assignments. But for some students whose program includes a co-op or work placement, the dispute has also affected their work placement.

“I don’t know if my semester is going to be pushed forward, or if I am going to lose a semester and lose out an opportunity to apply [for a job],” said Carly Howie, a fourth-year student in the School of Nursing.

Ms. Howie had finished three-quarters of her placement at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto when the strike began, and she was told she would not be able to complete the program until it was resolved. Students are supervised by clinical course directors who are union members and are on strike.

To graduate, nursing students must complete 432 hours of work in the hospital. Ms. Howie is now waiting to find out when she will be working her last 10 shifts of 12-hours each, while studying for her licensing exam, which she hopes to take in June.

New nursing graduates can only take the exam after they graduate.

With her placement on hold, Ms. Howie is worried that her graduation could be delayed, pushing back her exam and employment. Another student in the program sent an open letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne asking for provincial intervention.

“If you had a successful mid-term where you were passing with no areas of concern and you had over 300 hours [done], I believe we should have been allowed to stay in the hospital and complete our hours,” Ms. Howie said.

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The university says its offer represents the best compensation package for instructors in Ontario, including annual salary hikes of more than 2 per cent. York has also repeatedly asked that the most contentious issues be settled through an arbitrator.

But CUPE 3903, the local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the instructors, says it continues to be concerned over the school’s proposals on how temporary instructors are appointed to permanent positions and the lack of trust between the parties.

Relations between the school and the union are frayed. Last year, CUPE filed a complaint at the Ontario Labour Board against the university, alleging that a change in how it funds graduate students cost it 690 members. The complaint was put on hold during bargaining.

Still, both sides are hoping talks Tuesday will lead to progress. York said in a statement that it is returning to the table because the union has “communicated that it believes a negotiated settlement can be reached if the parties return to the table.”

“I know that we are coming with things that we think we are close on, that in principle York should agree with and that we can work out the language at the table,” said Lina Nasr, the spokeswoman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Local 3903. “But we really hope that they come with something as well,” she said.

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