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One week into strike, union repping York workers says school isn’t taking demands seriously

For some York students and staff, Monday is a school day, but for over 3,000 educators at the university who say their wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation, it marks the start of their second week on the picket line.

Since last week, contract instructors, teaching assistants and graduate assistants — who teach more than 50 per cent of the school’s classes — have been striking at north Toronto campus. The decision to strike came after the union representing workers, CUPE 3903, and the school failed to reach a deal on a new collective agreement.

Wages remain the key sticking point, according to union members.

“We have members who are relying on food banks. We have members working multiple jobs just to make ends meet,” Isaac Thornley, a member of the CUPE bargaining team who represents full-time graduate students working as teaching assistants, said from the picket line Friday.

A young man in a toque smiles for the camera in front of a line of cars and a picket line. A CUPE flag waves beside him
As a member of the CUPE bargaining team, Isaac Thornley represents full-time graduate students working as teaching assistants. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

“We are frustrated that York University has put us in this position where we need to go on strike, just to keep up with the cost of living,” he said.

School says union hasn’t responded to key proposals

In an email to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for the university echoed a statement issued when the strike began.

The university provided “comprehensive proposals” to CUPE 3903 on Feb. 7 and 21, which “addressed key items, including increase in rates of pay,” said Yanni Dagonas.

“Thus far, the union has not responded to these comprehensive proposals at the bargaining table, and most notably has not responded to the University’s proposals on pay,” Dagonas said. “On the advice of the provincially appointed conciliation officer, the parties have not met since February 23.”

A young man in a high-visibility orange vest and sunglasses smiles lightly at the camera. A line of cars is behind him, along with a picket line. York University is far in the background.
Brodie Stevenson is a course instructor at York University’s dance school. He says with the wages the school is currently paying members of his union, he and his colleagues aren’t able to afford the cost of living in Toronto. (Ethan Lang/CBC)

Brody Stevenson, a course instructor in York’s dance department, said Friday that morale remained high on the picket line, but his situation was becoming untenable with costs rising steeply since the last strike in 2018.

“It’s tight,” he said. “We’re not getting paid enough to do the job we’ve been hired to do and live at the same time.”

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s on strike would prefer to be at work but they’d also prefer to be at work with a decent wage and a little bit more job security.”

Stevenson was one of dozens of workers striking at the university’s main gate Friday afternoon.

The picket line there stopped cars one by one as they drove into campus. The strike doesn’t involve tenured professors, so some classes are still on, and workers urged students in their cars not to attend.

Student says she’s caught in crossfire

After a week of striking and class interruptions, many students were reluctant to comment on the strike or how it was affecting their education.

One student, Rebecca, who’s in her final year of a biology major and did not want her full name used for fear of academic retribution, said she’s still going to class, even though she supports the union.

“I fully understand and support the CUPE (members) and their right to strike and I think they should be getting paid fair wages,” she said outside the York student centre Friday. She said she feels “greed” on the university’s part is prolonging the strike.

“However, as a student, I’ve already paid my tuition. I had plans to graduate at a certain time.”

University, union both say they’re ‘willing’ to meet

Erin McIntosh, spokesperson for CUPE 3903 and a PhD student at York, said Friday that the union still has not heard from the university since the strike started Monday.

She said the current wage proposal from the university doesn’t cover what’s been lost to inflation since the last collective agreement. On top of that, she said, wage caps introduced by Bill 124, which the province recently repealed after it was deemed unconstitutional, are still impacting members’ wages.

“York University has not demonstrated an intention to negotiate fairly,” she said in an email. “They have spent more energy on undermining workers’ rights by trying to encourage people to work through the strike than they have on bargaining seriously.”

Dagonas says the university “remains willing to return to the table to receive a counterproposal from CUPE 3903.”

McIntosh says the union’s bargaining team “remains willing to meet at any moment with the university.”

For now, the picket line will be back up tomorrow morning.

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