Six thousand teaching assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike, after a meeting Friday afternoon in which TAs voted to reject the deal their bargaining committee and the university had agreed to 12 hours before.
The rejection means that barring a weekend deal, undergraduate students on the school's three campuses will be seeing their teaching assistants on the picket lines Monday morning. In a statement, the union left open the possibility that a deal with the university could still be reached over the weekend.
"Our bargaining committee will be available to meet on short notice. Both sides need to return to the table and finish the job of negotiating a settlement that is fair to our members, and preserves quality education at U of T," said Erin Black, chair of CUPE 3902.
In an email to members, the union said that 90 per cent of the people who attended the Friday meeting had rejected the agreement. According to those who were in the room, objections centred on the amount of the increase to students' overall funding package and wages.
"The meeting was boisterous," one teaching assistant there said.
The walkout is the first labour disruption since 2000, and only the fourth from TAs since they formed a union in the 1970s. The main issues at the bargaining table revolved around the amount of funding provided to graduate students and the cost of tuition for doctoral students in the last years of their program. The last contract expired in April, 2014.
"We are disappointed that while a tentative agreement unanimously approved by the Unit 1 bargaining team was reached late last night, Unit 1 members who attended a meeting this afternoon voted not to send the agreement to the full bargaining unit membership for ratification," said Althea Blackburn-Evans, a spokesperson for the university.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which is representing TAs and sessional instructors, has argued that the $15,000 the university provides to graduate students through teaching or research assistantships, as well as a stipend, is below the $23,647 poverty-line income for a single person in Toronto.
Approximately 1,000 sessional faculty who teach courses on a contract basis reached a tentative agreement earlier in February, which will be voted on next week. That deal saw a wage increase of approximately 3 per cent over three years and some job security for existing instructors.
York University's non-tenured teaching faculty are still negotiating this weekend and could also hit the picket lines early next week. Key issues between the union and the administration have been job security for contract faculty and tuition costs for international graduate students. About half of York University's faculty are part-time instructors.
A strike at York in 2008 ended with back to work legislation after workers were on the picket lines for three months.
Over 100,000 undergraduate students attend the two schools.
"We have been working to minimize any adverse impact on our students during a strike, and we are committed to providing regular updates to our community regarding the situation on our three campuses," the University of Toronto's Blackburn-Evans said.
Undergraduate students were worried that a long strike could affect their graduation, but said they are also concerned about the quality of teaching in their classrooms. The number of students in tutorials has increased without an increase in the number of hours instructors are paid, said Yollen Bollo-Kamara, president of the undergraduate students' union.
"Teaching assistants are not able to communicate with students because they don't have contract hours," she said. In some cases, she said, teaching assistants have said they have less than 10 minutes to mark a 10-page essay.
Graduate students can work as teaching assistants for 10 hours a week but are expected to spend most of their time studying. But TAs say the amount of money they receive cannot cover living costs in Toronto.
"We are supposed to be full-time students. There isn't more time to have a full-time job," one teaching assistant in history said.