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Photo by Jenny Fisher.

After five days of bargaining in November and December, CUPE Local 3908 Unit 2 and Trent University are going to conciliation. Though some progress was made, the groups reached an impasse, mostly over financial matters.

CUPE 3908 Unit 2 is comprised of students employed as Teaching Assistants, Academic Assistants, Proctors, Lab Demonstrators, and Lab Advisors at Trent. Generally, these are Master’s and PhD students working with undergraduate students in seminar rooms and labs.

According to Unit 2 VP Phil Abbott, the bargaining team’s main goals are to negotiate an agreement that would reduce the incidence of working unpaid hours, protect existing funding, and keep current wages and benefits from being eroded by rising costs. “Tuition has increased more than our wages in the past three years, as has the amount we pay for our health plan. We don’t want to fall even further behind in the next three years.”

Rising levels of grad student debt are part of the motivation for the members of the Local. “Almost all of what I earn as a TA, I pay back to Trent as tuition and fees”, says Gary Larsen. “I am very concerned that if tuition hikes keep going up faster than wages, it will make it that much more difficult for me to start a life after graduating.” A recent study by TD Bank found that high levels of student debt were leading many post-graduate students to  delay goals such as starting a family, getting married, and buying a house.

“It’s very frustrating”, says Stephen Horner, President of the Local. “TAs play such a vital role in the undergraduate experience. Now we are being told that there is an expectation for them to accept a two-year wage freeze while Trent continues to take more money out of their pockets every year. This is an unconscionable way to try to balance the books.”

According to the bargaining team, they expect to continue negotiations and hope that the conciliation process will be productive.

A strike vote is planned for January, but the bargaining team emphasizes that a strike would not be called unless it was impossible to otherwise negotiate an agreement that met the mandate its members had set.