The York administration has targeted particular departments and faculties to ask CUPE 3903 members, particularly Teaching Assistants and Contract Faculty, to sign a form indicating that they are willing to return to work.
A strike is a very stressful time for everyone and such an offer may seem appealing. Before you make such a decision, however, you should know that there are financial resources available to you as a member of CUPE 3903, that there might be unintended consequences should you return to work before a new contract is reached, and that such a decision will hurt you and your colleagues.
While on strike, all members of CUPE 3903 can engage in strike duties for up to 20hrs/week at a rate of $15/hr. This means you can earn up to $1200/month through Strike Pay. This pay is paid out weekly, for increased flexibility. Strike duties mostly include picketing; however, if you are unable to picket, you can apply for alternative duties.
Strike pay might not be enough to help you make ends meet — this is why there is also a Strike Hardship Fund. You can apply to this fund to receive money which you do not need to pay back once the strike is over. The union has your back; none of our members will be abandoned because of the strike.
Once a new contract is reached, we will negotiate a “Back to Work Protocol” which sets out the terms of our return to work. Historically, this protocol has stipulated back pay, which has covered members’ regular pay for the remainder of the term. CUPE 3903 would never agree to a Back to Work Protocol that does not include all of our members who participated in the strike. That means that if members in Social Science are getting back pay for the classes they need to complete, members in the Sciences will get back pay for classes where York has hired replacement workers. If you choose to return to work now, you will not be covered by the Back to Work Protocol. Between the strike pay, the Strike Hardship Fund, and the Back-to-Work protocol, you can expect to make more money if you participate in strike duties, rather than less.
CUPE National Constitution and Penalties
CUPE 3903 is a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). As such, we are covered by the CUPE Constitution. It is worth noting that returning to work during a legal strike is grounds, under this Constitution, for punitive action. Members found to be in violation of the Constitution can face fines and expulsion from the union.
The decision to go forward with such a process is not a given. However, members should know that there could be unintended consequences to their decisions.
A Strong Contract for All
There are numerous benefits we all share when we get a strong contract, and this happens when we are united. Our strong health benefits package is the result of past members fighting for a fair deal, including through means of a legal strike. Our 2015 strike ensured international students had their $7000 tuition hike rolled back and parents gained access to the Childcare Fund. Our agreements also ensure us discounts at campus daycare centers, funds for emergencies, professional development, and extended health benefits, and protections from overwork.
The issues we face in this strike do not only affect us now but will affect all incoming graduate students and those of us who would like to continue teaching once we receive our PhDs.
The “Priority Pool” is the gem of the Unit 1 (Teaching Assistant) collective agreement. This priority pool means that once someone has taught one TAship, they are entitled to five years and two semesters of funding. Any attack on the Priority Pool is an attack on those six years of funding.
And we are seeing the Priority Pool under attack. In 2016, York introduced a new Fellowship Funding model and suddenly graduate student funding was different and no one knew what was going on. The Fellowship model showed that York believes they have the right to change how funding is paid out without any notice or explanation. These changes could continue to affect how funding is given out to graduate students and move members out of the Priority Pool. Our current proposal in bargaining seeks to protect the Priority Pool explicitly in our next Collective Agreement.
Job security for contract faculty is not only important for those who currently hold contract teaching jobs at York, but for all graduate students who would like to teach. Giving full-time job opportunities to the contract faculty who have taught at York the longest will free up jobs for low-seniority members, like new PhDs.
Finally, the fight for Graduate Assistant jobs is a fight for accessible graduate education. The Master’s students who were robbed of job opportunities when more than 800 GA jobs were cut were also robbed of the health benefits, access to funds, and protections that you enjoy. This means that those who need it the most — people with dependents, students with disabilities, first-generation students — are the ones who will struggle to afford graduate education. Access to graduate education should be based on merit, not whether one needs expensive medication or childcare.