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‘Breaking point’: Thousands of academic workers at York University go on strike

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Thousands of York University workers go on strike
Around 3,000 education workers walked off the job on Monday after their union failed to reach a deal with university administrators. While they demand fair pay to address the rising cost of living, students are bracing themselves for what could be a long disruption. Matthew Bingley reports – Feb 26, 2024

About 3,000 academic workers at York University went on strike Monday, saying the school had not met demands to address an affordability crisis, while some students worried the labour dispute would make them fall behind.

The striking workers at the north Toronto university include contract faculty, teaching and graduate assistants, research assistants and part-time librarians represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3903.

Erin McIntosh, a union spokesperson, said the workers are struggling with high increases in the cost of basic needs, including food and housing. Workers are being forced to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, she said.

“The employer is still making an offer that is far below the rising cost of living. Who can afford to work at York anymore,” she wrote in a statement.

“We don’t want to be in this position, but things are at a breaking point. The university needs to get serious about bargaining in a way that addresses the issues of affordability and equity.”

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York said it had hoped to have agreed on a collective agreement over the weekend before the union’s planned strike date of 12:01 a.m. on Monday. It said the union did not respond to two proposals earlier this month addressing various items, including increase in rates of pay.

York said contingency plans for “all aspects of university operations are in place” and said courses and academic activities in progress “that can continue will continue.”

But some students said the strike was already affecting their education.

“I’m feeling pretty annoyed,” Isobel Robinson, a first-year film student, said while walking inside the university’s student centre.

“Almost all of my classes are cancelled currently. I live on residence … so you’re pretty much just stranded here waiting.”

The 18-year-old said her instructors have notified her that bonus assignments will make up for the ones that have been delayed and some assignments will be removed from the syllabus altogether.

She said despite those measures, she was still concerned about not learning enough this semester if the strike goes on for a considerable time.

Fourth-year history student Rogan Reece Kennedy said he was concerned he might not graduate on time due to the strike as some of his classes have been cancelled and assignments that were due this week are in limbo.

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“I’m stressed out,” the 23-year-old said. “Some of my classes are still going, some of them aren’t … There’s a lot of confusion.”

As striking workers gathered on campus on Monday, Katie Slemp, a teaching assistant who was among those who walked off the job, said she hopes the university will listen to its workers.

“I make about $1,900 and my rent is $2,400 a month … in Toronto so if I didn’t have a partner I don’t know what I would do,” she said.

“Hopefully we get some engagement because I like teaching. I love my job. I love being a PhD student. I love being a teaching assistant. I like all my students and I hope that we can get somewhere quickly.”

She noted when the workers last went on strike at York University in 2018, they were forced back to work through legislation passed by the province without a resolution to the issues that led to the strike.

The Ford government then passed Bill 124, that capped salary increases for broader public sector workers at one per cent a year for three years. That law was deemed unconstitutional earlier this month.

“We haven’t received … an actual wage increase for those years when we were held to an unconstitutional wage cap and so we want backpay,” Slemp said.

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Dhouha Triki, a teaching assistant at York University, said she was also striking for better pay, as well as better working conditions.

Triki said she had been in touch with her students about the strike.

“I told them that we were unable to reach an agreement with York University, and that this is important for me because our working conditions as teachers is also a reflection of your learning conditions as students.'” she said.

“I want to make sure that folks know the amount of work that we do and what goes into navigating these two roles as teaching assistants and graduate students and that we’re not getting paid enough.”

York said it “will continue to work toward a swift, equitable and sustainable agreement” with the union.

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