Trent teaching assistants avoid strike, but with reservation

Photo of CUPE 3908 Unit 2 members supporting student workers at York and U of T, who are still on picket lines. Photo courtesy CUPE 3908.
Photo of CUPE 3908 Unit 2 members supporting student workers at York and U of T, who are still on picket lines. Photo courtesy CUPE 3908.

Members of CUPE 3908 Unit 2, which represents 350 graduate students, have voted to ratify a three-year collective agreement with 77% in favour, alas with reservation, says the bargaining team.

The CUPE bargaining team implied that the members didn’t see potential gains of a strike in this particular round when weighing the cost. And the members felt that relative to the settlements people have got at other universities and other public sector employers, “this was a reasonable deal.”

After four months of active bargaining, a new collective agreement commencing 1 September 2014, to 31 August 2017 came in to effect on March 17 following ratification of the deal by both Trent’s Board of Governors and CUPE Unit 2.

“Although the result might sound enthusiastic, it is a reserved 77%,” said a member of CUPE’s bargaining team, Gary Larsen.

“Ultimately the graduate students are still going to suffer in three years time, with a widening gap between tuition and wage, which was the concern members had emphasized throughout the process,” reasoned Vice-President of CUPE Unit 2 and a member of CUPE’s bargaining team, Phil Abbott, for the reservation.

CUPE 3908 President Stephen Horner pointed out that, “We can’t do anything now about the wages, and our focus has to now shift to working on pushing back against tuition increases.”

They are aware that it is going to be hard because the university controls the rate of tuition increase, and the government plays a role in setting caps on tuition increases. The government also controls the amount of funding (to an extent) that universities have, which determines how much they need to charge for tuition.

So they will look towards working with other university workers and other graduate student groups to try to figure out how to be effective at pushing the government to provide better funding to universities, and also pressure the university to limit the increases that they apply to tuition, said Horner.

One of the fundamental things that needs to happen right now is a change in the funding formula from the province, says Larsen. This, according to him, has to be instigated by universities putting pressure on the province to change it and find a equitable solution, without which universities will continuously raise tuitions and use lack of change in the funding formula as an excuse for the increase.

“With the rising cost of tuition I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that people having access to right to education is being seriously challenged. Without reformulating that to make education easily achievable, there is a legitimate cause to question whether we have that right or not,” said Larsen.

Associate Vice-President Human Resources for Trent University (AVP-HR) Stephanie Williams said, “We are  pleased that the parties were able to reach a mutually acceptable agreement without any interruption to the academic year for our students.” She also believes that there is a sense of satisfaction that this is a fair agreement.

According to her, both sides worked hard to make the bargaining process fulfilling, especially during a time when the university is facing a challenge of fiscal constraints.
As outlined by Williams, major highlights of the agreement include changes to benefits including enhancements to the professional development fund, and an offset by a slight reduction of reimbursement for the GSA Health Benefit Plan. There will be amendments to the way graduate teaching assistant (GTA) positions are assigned to employees. Also included is the improved monitoring of hours worked by GTAs, shared Williams.

In addition, the university will offer modest across-the-board increases to salary in the three years term–a 1% increase in both the first and second year, while the third year will see a 1.5% wage increase.

Further gains from the new agreement will be provision of one time student worker recognition, enhanced health benefit reimbursement, and a significant increase in the Professional Development Fund, added Williams.

Meanwhile CUPE will continue to build on solidarity with other locals, build relationships between student worker unions, student organizations, organizations that represent grad students, and students at the provincial and national levels.

These, according to them, are important relationships to build and cultivate, and strategies to use for pushing back against tuition increases – the real issue that this is all about.

About Ugyen Wangmo 87 Articles
Ugyen Wangmo is a self trained media personal, steadfast to 'right to information'. She has about six years of media experience through a variety of roles as Reporter, Editor, Stringer, and Freelance writer. She graduated from Trent with a degree in Chemistry and Biology. When not nosing around for leads to write a thing or two about, she indulges in books, fashion, and dance.