Thursday, February 16, 2012

“Defend our education: support teaching assistants”

Organized in just a week, hundreds of people representing a broad layer of the University of Toronto community united for the rally “Defend our Education: support teaching assistants”. As the Governing Council—the 1% on campus—met in a private meeting under chandeliers, the 99% on campus rallied outside in the lead up to CUPE 3902’s February 24 strike date.

Undergraduates were at the forefront of the rally. CUPE 3902 supported the student day of action against tuition fees, and students are reciprocating.  OPIRG-Toronto made a video supporting TA's, and "Undergrads for 3902" has organized a letter writing campaign. As one of their members explained, “we need a politics of solidarity. They support us every day of the year, and we need to stand with them when they need us. The interests are not opposed, they are aligned. We will not be crossing the picket line, we will be joining it.”

She and others brought 1000 letters signed by undergrads supporting CUPE 3902, and after demands from the crowd they were let through a police barrier into Simcoe Hall to deliver the petitions to the Governing Council. Meanwhile CUPE3902 hoisted a banner on helium balloons up to the window where the Governing Council was meeting.

Students wore stickers saying, “I hate my tuition, but I love my TA”. While tuition has been rising, so too have so too have tutorial sizes—a quarter have over 50 students, and a hundred have over 100 students. This undermines the ability of TAs to respond to undergrad’s educational needs, and reducing tutorial and lab sizes is a main demand of CUPE 3902. As an international student and member of CUPE 3902 explained: “We have been reduced to grading machines. If I’m in the fight it’s because I’m concerned about the quality of education at this university.”

As another placard read, “their working environment is our learning environment." CUPE 3902 is also demanding better graduate student funding, which benefits both grad students and undergrads. Because of insufficient graduate student funding (PhD students only receive funding for four or five years, when it takes an average of six years to complete), grad students need to take on extra jobs, undermining the time they have to devote to research and teaching. For international students who can only legally work on campus, this even threatens their ability to stay in the country. 

There was support from other unions on campus, including Steelworkers 1998 (administrative and technical workers), Unite HERE 75 (food service workers), CUPE 2484 (childcare workers). There was also a broader support, including a Toronto city worker from CUPE 416, Toronto Steelworkers, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn, and Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario chairperson Sandy Hudson—who led the crowd in chanting, “TAs and lecturers under attack, what do we do: unite, fight back.”

1) Contact Provost Cheryl Misak (416-978-2122, and Vice-President of Human Resources Angela Hildyard (416-978-4865, and tell them you support CUPE 3902. Copy so they know you support them
2) Stay updated: visit and follow @cupe3902
3) If there’s a strike: don’t cross the picket line, join it

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

photo essay: Feb1 student day of action

On February 1, students across the country took to the streets for a day of action, organized by the Canadian Federation of Students.

In Toronto, thousands of students from multiple campuses converged at the University of Toronto, marched through downtown and rallied at Queen's Park.

Students are facing skyrocketing tuition and massive levels of debt. 
On top of chronic education cutbacks and underfunding, students are being made to pay for the economic crisis they did not create. But as they chanted, "they say cut back, we say fight back", and "education is a right, we will not give up the fight."

In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty campaigned on a promise to reduce tuition fees by 30%, but this only applies to a fraction of students. The size of the demonstration in Toronto, and the chants directed at McGuinty ("Dalton, you liar, tuition's getting higher") shows that students weren't fooled. In their thousands, students demanded a reduction of tuition fees for all, a dropping of the student debt, and an increase in education funding.

Students also made links with other issues, chanting and face-painting "drop fees, not bombs". The money for accessible education exists, but it's being wasted on fighter jets, tar sands, prisons, and tax breaks for the 1%.

The labour movement supported the day of action, including members of CUPE, Steelworkers, Toronto District Labour Council and the Ontario Federation of Labour.

This solidarity is crucial. More than 4,000 teaching assistance, graduate-student instructors, lab demonstrators, invigilators and writing instructors at the University of Toronto (represented by CUPE 3902) unanimously voted to set a strike deadline of February 24 if the administration fails to offer them a reasonable contract. They are asking for smaller class sizes, adequate compensation and better funding--in other words, they are trying to improve education.

There is already solidarity growing for CUPE 3902, from a campus organizing meeting drawing the links between students, TAs and food service workers, to an undergraduate-led campaign by OPIRG. As their video states, "CUPE 3902's proposals will improve the quality of education at UofT. What's good for CUPE 3902 members is good for undergraduate students." The February 1 day of action showed the strength and solidarity of the 99% on campus, which will be crucial in the weeks and months ahead to win accessible, high quality public education.