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Education York expecting short-lived walkout, but U of T has no scheduled talks

York University president Mamdouh Shoukri at his office in Toronto on Sept 23, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The unprecedented walkout by teaching assistants at York University and the University of Toronto at the same time is likely to be short-lived as the union and administration at York are stressing that they believe they can bridge the distance between them.

"There is an old history at York that people look at, with concern. This strike is very different from other strikes in terms of the tone, in terms of the level of agreement … This is not a reflection of a continuing labour-relations issue … I believe an agreement is achievable very easily," York University president Mamdouh Shoukri said.

The teaching assistants have been on strike since Tuesday over job security and tuition for international graduate students. The union says it believes the university understands its focus on trying to win more job security for contract instructors.

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"Contract faculty has resonated with students, with parents, with many administrators – they understand the statistics on [teaching by] contract faculty are compelling," said Faiz Ahmed, the chairperson of CUPE 3903, which is representing striking York University workers.

Should the strike continue beyond a "reasonable number of days … we will review every program and see what programs can be offered while maintaining the integrity of the program and ensuring clarity for our students," Dr. Shoukri said.

At U of T, however, the two sides have no scheduled talks.

On Wednesday morning, U of T's administration said it is talking to the provincial mediator and is ready to return to the bargaining table "as soon as he thinks there is a basis" to do so.

At the same time, the university restated it wants to see the deal it negotiated with CUPE 3902's bargaining committee put to a vote by the full membership. A meeting attended by approximately one in six TAs on Friday resolutely turned down that tentative agreement.

"This agreement was unanimously agreed to by the bargaining team," said Cheryl Regehr, the university's vice-president and provost.

The key issue in the dispute at the University of Toronto has been the amount of the funding package, made up of grants and income from teaching tutorials or working as a research assistant. That amount was set at a minimum of $15,000 in 2008 and has not gone up since.

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However, less than 10 per cent of graduate students receive only the minimum amount, Dr. Regehr said.

"Funding for graduate students has increased to an average of $35,000 across the university," she said, adding that the amount received by doctoral students in arts, social sciences and humanities is only slightly less.

A working group of representatives across the university has been studying how to increase the $15,000, but graduate students have not agreed with that committee's initial recommendations.

The university won't negotiate with CUPE 3902 on a direct increase to the funding package because not every graduate student belongs to the union, Dr. Regehr said.

So far, the university has decided to keep classes open. Teaching assistants have received e-mails from the university outlining the process they need to follow if they choose to work while the strike continues.

"This is a trying time for the university, but the vast majority of our classes are continuing … Decisions are being made whether faculty will take the labs and tutorials in some areas … [or if] the lab is not critical and might be cancelled for this week," Dr. Regehr said

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