Trent Sign
Photo by Jenny Fisher.

 

[Please note: this article was written to give context to the collective agreement between CUPE 3908 Unit 2 and Trent University. It was written before the ratification vote had ended, and therefore implies that a strike is still possible. As of Monday, March 16, 2015, union members voted 262-71 in favour of ratification. Next, Trent University will vote on ratification. The date has not yet been set.]

Trent University faces potential imminent contingency of strike action by about 380 Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs).

GTAs reckon that the current tentative Collective Agreement the bargaining team negotiated with the administration doesn’t address the core issue—increasing tuition while the wages don’t keep pace.

“We will not strike because we need more money, we will strike because we need to be able to manage our tuition increases somehow,” said the President of Canadian Union of Public Employee (CUPE) Local 3908, Stephen Horner, who is also a member of the bargaining team.

He said that as a graduate student, the issue really is the tuition—it continues to increase, and the graduates’ strongest tool to be used against this increase is to fight for better wages through their union.

It comes down to this, explained Horner, “What we really want is the province to have a discussion about free education and to start moving in that direction, or at the very least we want tuition freezes and tuition rollbacks, for now.”

He reasoned that education should be recognized as a public good, and that it benefits everyone to have a educated society. As such, it should be something that is funded as a society, so people are not forced as an individual to incur this massive debt to develop the skills and knowledge that make them contributors to society.

Although they recognize that provincial funding is really a core part of it, what they object to is the university’s decision concerning how they want to deal with that underfunding, says Horner.

“We resist the idea that they will deal with that underfunding by making graduate students pay more,” he stated. They object to the idea that the university can balance this budget by squeezing student workers for more tuition and then for not giving any of that back in wages, he said.

It was also pointed out that, “The fact that TAs at York and U of T rejected similar deals to ours is obviously going to be something that some members consider, but we are not facing pressure from those locals. We are collectively making a decision for ourselves. Whatever that is, we will then all move forward together.”

However, given the political climate and the status they started with, Gary Larsen, a member of the bargaining team, described the tentative contract as the “best possible deal that we can get. … It’s not great but it’s just something that will keep us going for now.” The wage and the tuition connection is a big issue for the members, but they are voting on the whole funding package.

Although financing is generally the issue that takes the most attention, there is still quite a bit in the package that is good, pointed out Larsen. For instance, recognition of health benefits, quality of recognition of identity, rights, and core groups, PhD instructorship, and increase in professional developments.

It would be a mistake to say that on the whole the people who are displeased are dissatisfied with the package, but it does primarily stem from that one issue, noted Larsen.

“The key issue for us all the way through is having the employer recognize the link between the tuition that members pay and their need to work to pay for their tuition,” says the bargaining team. The failure of the employer to recognize that link is what is most frustrating and dissatisfying for the bargaining team and their members.

The bargaining team understands that the GTAs provide a vital role at the university in terms of making tutorials happen, being in labs, marking, and giving students feedback on their work. “If all of those things are not happening it is hard to imagine how the university would still deliver courses and how undergraduate students would complete their credits,” says the team. In the event of a strike, they sincerely regret that it would disrupt the regular functioning of the university.

However, it would also impact the members themselves by forcing them out of the classrooms. They would rather be in the classrooms working with the students than out on the picket line, handing out leaflets and carrying signs.

Although, as informed by Larsen, going on a strike is the last resort to be able to fight for some basic dignity and quality. And strike action is the only, and strongest tool at the GTAs disposal.

Environmental and Life Sciences Ph.D. student, Clay Prateer, implied that the existing state of affairs doesn’t matter to him as long as they don’t strike.

The rest of the details won’t affect him too much because he is due to be finished soon. However, “I acknowledge that it might be important for others who are earlier on in their studies to give it a serious consideration,” says Prateer.

Moreover he is also not fully aware of the entire details pertaining to the tentative agreement because he hasn’t received any of the details yet. His extent of knowledge regarding it is that the pay rate should increase slightly, and that they temporarily won’t go on strike, said Prateer.

According to him, his concerns regarding the possibilities of having to go on strike is “not getting paid regularly.” And he expects that striking shouldn’t affect his research, so long as he can continue to write his thesis. And, if it doesn’t push back on his graduation date, he is not too worried, he said. But he is not sure about how it might affect others who are taking classes or doing research.

In the event of a strike, Prateer feels that it would be more beneficial for him to not picket, and just continue to write. But if it lasts for a long time he will have to picket to get the strike pay.

“I am more worried about my thesis writing time than anything. Every semester that I go overtime will cost me around five thousand dollars more, as an international student, which is far more important to me than a strike,” he said.

However, everyone involved is at a different point in their career, and may have different priorities, “so I understand why many are opposing the ratification,” stressed Prateer.

Now that their membership draws closer to ratifying the tentative agreement, there have been opposing voices calling for acceptance or rejection of the tentative agreement for various reasons, said Environmental and Life Sciences program, Masters student, Lauren Banks.

There are questions about whether a strike would result in a greater wage increase, concerns over potential impacts on undergraduate learning, fears about inadequate wages, and about being sunk further into debt, says Banks.

However, as a member of CUPE 3908 Unit 2, she is proud of the bargaining team’s efforts to reach a fair deal with Trent. She understands that nothing exemplifies this more than their willingness to negotiate until 4am, four hours after they were in a legal strike position.

Instead of the two-year wage freeze that Trent proposed, the team negotiated for annual wage increases over the next three years, as well as a student recognition amount, and an increased contribution by Trent to the health plan, she said.

For the majority of graduate teaching assistants, their priorities are to stay in the classroom and continue in their educational roles. Many teaching assistants feel strongly connected to their students, are deeply invested in cultivating students’ understanding, and concentrate on being an academic resource for them, she said.

Without TAs (or academic assistants) many seminars, workshops, and labs would no longer be run in the event of a strike, she fears. In addition, assignments wouldn’t be marked, potentially affecting outcomes for the semester. Thus, a strike is not a desirable result for undergraduates, TAs, or Trent, noted Banks.

Like their counterparts who are currently on strike at York and University of Toronto, many graduate students struggle to pay for tuition and living expenses.

In the current tentative agreement, wages will increase 3.5% over three years. For comparison, inflation has averaged 1.91% annually for the past 10 years, eclipsing our modest annual wage increase. In conjunction, tuition is slated to rise 6% by 2017.

These numbers reflect a graduate level education that is increasingly inaccessible financially, and is therefore a key bargaining priority for them, explained Banks.

If the membership did not ratify the tentative agreement, the membership would be in a legal position to strike. This outcome is not desirable for either the university or graduate student teaching assistants, she said.

However, if this were the outcome of the vote, “We need to stand in solidarity with our membership, as we ask other unions on campus and undergraduate students to stand in solidarity with us,” says Banks.

After talking to a number of undergraduate students, Arthur received two general contradicting reviews.

Some feel that it is unfair they be dragged into a negotiation when they have little or no involvement at all. They are worried they might not be able to complete their credits lest the strike continues for a long time. It would cost them an extra semester, and by extension, extra money.

In addition there is a great range of confusion and questions that would arise in trying to understand who would conduct seminars and tutorials, or conduct labs, and mark assignments.

So, these students argue that in the best interest of everyone, the disagreement between Trent and GTAs should be resolved within themselves. “Don’t jeopardize our academic life!” say the students.

However, other groups of students identified with the actions of their TAs, saying that their fight right now is for the benefit of not only current, but all future graduate students. “It is a little price we are willing to pay,” implied the students, if they want to secure a long term benefit.

Meanwhile, Executive Director, Marketing and Communications, Marilyn Burns, said “[the] University feels it is prudent not to enter into any interviews while voting on ratification of the agreement by the members is underway.”

The online voting for the 2014-2017 tentative collective agreement opened on March 4 for a period of 10 days. GTAs could be on strike as early as March 16 if members vote “no.”