University students out of classrooms again as Toronto teaching assistants strike

York University cancels classes amid strike (CBC)
York University cancels classes amid strike (CBC)

With classes out at York University and picket lines up at the University of Toronto, post-secondary students in Toronto officially have more to worry about this school year than their grade point average.

So far, any bad blood being spilled in the dispute has beencontained to the striking teaching assistants (members of the Canadian Union ofPublic Employees) and their university employers.

Many of those whose education, and, some say, potential future employment, has been impacted are taking it pretty well.

“Everyone has a right to fight for a better life,” a University of Toronto student, identified as Svetlana Davidchuk, told CBC News.

Then again, it’s no longer unusual to see picket lines up at schools, as well as other public institutions.

Strikes resulting from severe austerity measures feature heavily in the headlines we read about Greece’s struggling economy. But Canadians in various industries aren’t immune from similar problems as budgets shrink and concerns rise over pension plans and job security.

Labour disruption has become the new normal.

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In this latest dispute, money is a central theme. Unionized teaching assistants say the salaries they earn instructing labs and tutorials (not to mention performing a whole host of other, non-glamorous behind-the-chalkboard tasks) are driving them into the poor house, and threatening to derail their academic careers at the same time.

Tom Laughlin, a PhD student in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts and member of the CUPE 3092 bargaining team, told Yahoo Canada News that he and his colleagues earn about $15,000 a year for their part-time work as teaching assistants (TAs).

The union estimates the school’s 6,000 TAs do up to 60 per cent of undergrad instruction work, including grading papers, while earning a salary “significantly below the poverty line.”

TAs, who are full-time graduate students, are expected to pay full tuition.

“Which means the only way you can survive is if you have another part-time job,” said Laughlin, who, on top of his graduate studies and TA work, also teaches a course in English literature and is employed part-time in a book store.

The flip side of the dispute offered by university employers paints quite a different picture.

Cheryl Regehr, the University of Toronto’s vice-president and provost, said in an email that teaching assistants were offered a “generous” compensation package that amounted to $43.97 per hour plus vacation pay (for a total $45.73 an hour).

“Total funding packages for graduate students range from $23,000 to $41,000 a year,” the email states.

A tentative deal was reached by the parties in the University of Toronto dispute late last week. The agreement was rejected by the 6,000 members of Local 3902 the following day.

On Tuesday, University of Toronto students were still heading into the classroom, but labs and tutorials (run by TAs) were cancelled.

The scene was more severe at York University, where 3,700 teaching assistants began striking Tuesday. The university responded by suspending all classes, with a handful of exceptions.

“Let me assure you that every reasonable effort was made by the University to reach a fair settlement and avoid this labour disruption. We believe a settlement is readily achievable, and we look forward to resuming negotiations,” Mamdouh Shoukri, York president and vice chancellor, said in a media release posted on the university website.

The union, Local 3093, earlier fired out its own statement, noting, “We need a contract that recognizes the value of our members’ contribution to the learning environment at York.”

Laughlin said he spent four hours on the picket line on Monday and didn’t hear a single negative comment about the strike from passing students.

The support is not surprising, he said. Students, both undergrads and grads, share much in common. Most are struggling to pay soaring tuition costs, and all face historically high unemployment rates among their age demographic even before they graduate.

Still, Laughlin is hoping the strike is “short and sweet.”

“We all just want to continue doing our job,” he said.