Why I Strike: #WeAreUofT

Disclaimer: what follows is wholly my own anger-and-frustration-fuelled opinion and is not endorsed by CUPE.

The union to which I belong, CUPE 3902 Unit 1, has been on strike since February 27, when about 90% of union members present at a meeting—including me—voted to not send a tentative agreement to a ratification round.

CUPE 3902 Unit 1 represents approximately 6,000 teaching assistants, graduate-student course instructors, lab demonstrators, writing coaches, and other education workers at the University of Toronto.

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you’re aware that, despite the health-related challenges that it’s posed, teaching is something that I’m passionate about and was one of the biggest reasons for which I clung to the idea of staying in academia well after I developed intractable epilepsy and knew, at the core of my stubborn being, that doing so wouldn’t be in my best interests. Clichéd as it may sound, I get an incredible amount of satisfaction from language instruction and from facilitating students’ development as language learners.

So if I’m this passionate about teaching, why have I decided to strike when the university so despicably keeps encouraging union members to strike break (from that “despicably,” you can probably sense where the general tone of this post is headed)?

Because the proposed agreement did essentially nothing to address the fact that the guaranteed funding package for PhD students at the University of Toronto, a funding package that was established as a result of union negotiations, leaves students thousands and thousands of dollars below the low-income cutoff for a single-person household in Toronto. It thus emphasized just how much the university undervalues graduate students, whose research contributes to the prestige of the university and, perhaps more specifically relevant to the current situation, who have a direct and, I would argue, profound effect on the academic life of undergraduates.

We, the members of CUPE 3902, are on the front lines. For many undergraduate students, we are the face of the University of Toronto: whether in tutorials, in labs, in courses, or simply via feedback on a marked essay, we provide them with the opportunity to engage in a way that they can’t in a lecture with hundreds of others in Convocation Hall. We treat our students like they matter; it’s time for the administration to treat us like we do, too.

Instead, the university, which refused to negotiate for months, is conducting itself in a manner that makes me embarrassed to be affiliated with it. It’s actively sabotaging CUPE’s (legal) strike efforts, it’s misrepresenting CUPE’s demands and various other aspects of the situation in the media, and it won’t return to the bargaining table.

By alienating junior researchers in this way, by tarnishing relationships with people who help make the university one of the world’s top institutions, the administration is being immensely shortsighted. I, for one, am conflicted about that “University of Toronto” line under my name on upcoming publications.

I used to be proud to be a part of the U of T community. No longer. I hope that this change in attitude is transitory.

For more information about the strike and to see how you can get involved, I encourage you to visit weareuoft.ca.

I’ll add something that I’ve been too upset to publicly share until this point: that the university made me pay tuition for the summer semester of 2014, when I was on a medical leave of absence, due to a technicality in how they choose to structure tuition payments. I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to fight this through various channels, but they’ve stood firm, therefore punishing me for when I happened to fall ill, which was, of course, outside of my control. While I realize that this is not connected to the CUPE strike, it does speak to the extent to which the university is willing to use graduate students, even ones facing medical crises, for its economic gain.

Shame on you, U of T.


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