Public education has not been immune to the cuts and austerity measures recently doled out by the likes of the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government or Rob Ford-led municipal government in Toronto. The bosses in the education sector have readily adopted this culture and developed their own hostility towards any kind of labour action on the campuses.

Education workers at the University of Toronto earn $15,000 per year to do two, and sometimes three, jobs, including one full-time job as a research student. The increasing precariousness of the work environment on campus prompted 91% of the membership of CUPE 3902, the union that represents teaching assistants and course instructors at the University of Toronto, to set a strike deadline on February 24th, 2012. Workers demanded to index their wages with inflation, and to reinstitute funding which graduate student workers received for conducting their own dissertation research.  They also wanted to put caps on ballooning tutorial sizes and to provide funding for upper year students outside of the funded cohort. After seven months of negotiations, the university administration waited until the 11th hour to provide a serious offer on the key outstanding issues — until the night before the membership meeting and the strike deadline on February 24th. Not surprisingly, the tentative agreement did not deal with any of the three main demands of the membership. After the bargaining team recommended the tentative agreement, it was sent to the wider membership for ratification. Approximately 67% of the membership voted for the agreement, after a significant turnout at the polling stations.

The new collective agreement mandated a “working group” to deal with questions on quality of education. This was the administration’s counter-offer after they outright rejected any caps on tutorial sizes, claiming that large classes are sometimes pedagogically sound. Any recommendations of this working group, which has representation from Local 3902, has to be approved by the Provost, who had already refused to place any caps on tutorials. Similarly, the administration and the union leadership agreed that another “working group” is needed to discuss the question of non-dissertation-related Research Assistantships, which take away from the fellowship portion of the funding package. This effectively means that education workers end up working more hours for the same wage. Any recommendations of this “working group” also have to be approved by the university administration through the Provost. In other words, the Provost decides!

The administration also offered the bargaining team a “one-time only” fund for the coming two years to be distributed among members who have to do such Research Assistantships. It is basically bribing the membership, which fits perfectly with the employer’s fear-mongering tactics throughout the bargaining process. This bribe, unfortunately, has no institutional continuity since the fund will only be available for two years. Therefore, incoming members cannot reap the (minimal) gains of this collective agreement.  And, the employer’s offer was greatly insufficient to begin offsetting the problem even during those two years.

Finally, the membership demanded a reinstitution of the Doctoral Completion Grant (DCG), which was replaced by a competitive award. The DCG was intended to provide basic financial assistance for upper year students who are outside of the funded cohort because the funding package does not cover the total number of years required to finish a doctoral degree. This essentially means that while education workers are struggling to finish their dissertations, many will have no source of income to sustain their day-to-day needs, or their families. Worse yet, these student workers must pay their employer (through tuition fees), just to be at home finishing their dissertation research and for the right to continue conducting other paid teaching and research duties. The new collective agreement, again short-sightedly, set up another bribe — a “one-time only” fund for two years that is insufficient given the number of members who need financial assistance.

Essentially, the new collective agreement makes no real improvement to the conditions of education workers. The contract merely offers empty “working groups” where the university administration has the final say. In effect, none of the basic issues put forward by the rank and file of CUPE 3902 have been met.

Failure of the union leadership

The bargaining team recommended this contract to the membership, claiming that it was “the administration’s final offer.” This prompted two members of the bargaining team to resign, because they were not allowed to give a dissenting opinion at the membership meeting. The two resigned members expressed their concern that the new collective agreement does not address any of the three main demands of the local’s membership, especially that negotiations were not exhausted to the maximum. If the employer says, “This is the last best offer” (which was said), or even, “This is the final offer” (which was not said), it does not mean that it is the final offer. The bargaining team was mandated by the rank and file to actually bargain, which means giving counter-proposals and reflecting their members’ demands. Unlike their counterparts in CUPE 3903 at York University, local 3902 does not allow for open bargaining; in other words, members cannot attend the bargaining meetings with the employer or other bargaining committee meetings. An open and transparent bargaining process is necessary for keeping the leadership accountable and consistent with workers’ demands. In fact, it is the only way to mobilize the membership and build union consciousness during bargaining, precisely because they become part of the process. A system of open bargaining can reveal the employer’s bargaining tactics to the wider membership, and helps the union to actually win the labour dispute. Clearly, the bargaining team is an elected body and should remain accountable; this, however, should not bar the membership from attending bargaining meetings, but is only complemented by a system of open bargaining.

As soon as the bargaining team recommended the agreement at the membership meeting, the politics of the remaining union leadership started to materialize. The same bargaining team members changed their tone significantly from just one month earlier, and falsely claimed that the union is not ready to strike. In fact, the union was ready to strike — more ready than anytime in more than a decade. Strike preparations were finalized, from food to day-care to the training of 80 picket captains. Meanwhile, the membership that overwhelmingly supported strike action in the strike vote was very well informed, mobilized, and ready for the picket lines.

The bargaining team also falsely claimed that the administration could take away the gains reached thus far in the bargaining process if the local took strike action— a fear tactic that fed into existing fears cultivated relentlessly by the employer. This was reflected in the fast development of a new conservative line within the union that is allegedly the “official voice of the union” — one that is comprised of the local’s leadership with some support from the rank-and-file. Despite a near-even split within the original bargaining team and union executive, official union communication sent to the entire membership was aimed at “selling” the agreement — dissenting voices were actively silenced and discredited. Although the agreement speaks for its own demerits, its ratification is merely another indication of the imperativeness of having a militant union leadership that understands the limits of reformism and that is committed to advancing the interests and demands of the membership.

The new overt manifestation of older right-wing tendencies continued even after the contract’s ratification. In the first members’ meeting after the final vote count, the pro-ratification camp continued to resist a membership-based decision-making process. In fact, what is more outrageous is that the local’s executive unilaterally decided to ignore decisions democratically decided upon in a membership meeting, claiming “executive” power to do so. To add insult to injury, one of the local’s senior staff members, who also served as the chief negotiator of the local, just announced that he had resigned from his position at CUPE 3902 to go work for the employer as a Strategic Labour Relations Consultant. This puts his entire role as chief negotiator into question! Who was he truly working for during the negotiations — CUPE members or his new bosses in the university administration?  In any case, his going over to the employer so soon after bargaining leaves a bitter taste in workers’ mouths, especially given the poor agreement they were left with.

Towards a new CUPE 3902 under a socialist program

With other units in CUPE 3902 going into bargaining this year, the union must remain committed to open bargaining in order to maintain communication with the membership, and better maintain accountability by the bargaining team, the chair of the local, and the chief negotiator. More concretely, the membership must organize and fight back against the bureaucratic functioning of the union, and put into effect a direct recall process of the union’s bargaining team and executive committee. The leadership’s recommendation of this shortsighted and inequitable contract with the UofT administration has provoked a strong reaction among members of the rank-and-file. In fact, some of the rank-and-file began a full-fledged campaign against the ratification of the contract. However, to be successful, this level of political organizing in the union has to go hand-in-hand with the realization that our struggles not only lie in our monetary gains through collective bargaining, but are also embedded within the struggles of the rest of the working class in the fight against capitalism. The union does not exist in vacuum, but in an age of austerity and union busting by the conservative and liberal governments.  Because of the crisis of capitalism, the bosses and their allies in government need to impose cuts and attacks, to try to extract the greatest degree of profit that the system will allow.

CUPE 3902 must place itself within the labour movement and the struggles of the working class, to be able to act as a strong workers’ front and have the confidence to take strike action against the employer and against attacks on the education sector. Workers must adopt a longer-term strategic vision that requires them to look past what a particular collective agreement means in dollars and cents for their particular cohort. This is a time when even maintaining the status quo necessitates a sharp battle. Trade unions in the education sector can use the inspiration and the successes of the Quebec students’ strike, whilst being mindful of its setbacks, to intervene in important struggles facing the education sector, particularly attacks on the public university and the fight for free education, as well as possibly setting a fighting example for the rest of the labour movement.

Many members of Local 3902 will soon finish their degrees, and move on to the academic job market. This essentially means that they will become part of the perpetually expendable labour force of “post-doctoral” education workers. Education workers increasingly take on precarious jobs, with temporary contracts, moving from one sessional instructor position to another. The rank-and-file of local 3902 should unite to fight back against the capitalist structures within public education. This includes the austerity budget’s most recent innovation of online education, which is not only pedagogically problematic, but it also marks the beginning of the end of political organizing on university campuses. Additionally, these capitalist structures include the persistent inequities among different categories of workers on campus, most notably the university’s food service workers, who earn approximately $11-per-hour.

While it is disgraceful that the top fifty administrators at the University of Toronto earn an average salary of $300,000 per year, the struggle is not only about monetary or income redistribution. We are witnessing a crisis of capitalism, and without dismantling the capitalist system itself, we will remain at the mercy of the bosses and the austerity they impose. While trade unions’ primary function is to protect and fight for workers’ rights through collective bargaining, unions are equally spaces for organizing critical masses of the working class. In the words of Leon Trotsky, this is “a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labour aristocracy.” We’ve seen how the rank-and-file of the Toronto Public Library union (CUPE 4948) took strike action, and how the Air Canada workers’ defied their employer and the government by orchestrating a successful wildcat strike. Local 3902 should be inspired by such struggles and mobilize to move beyond this year’s set-back, in order to act as a strong front in the face of a university administration that perpetuates and recreates the mishaps of capitalism within the campus walls.

Mai Taha is a member of CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto.