On 2nd November 2009, 2,700 teaching assistants unionized in CUPE 3906 at McMaster University in Hamilton went out on strike. This strike came just three days before the province-wide Drop Fees for a Poverty Free Ontario Day of Action on November 5, and came exactly a week before the sessional lecturers at the University of Toronto (CUPE 3902) would be in a legal strike position. Almost exactly one year ago, approximately 3,200 teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty (sessional lecturers) in CUPE 3903 at York University went out on what would turn out to be the longest university sector strike in English-Canadian history, lasting a total of 85 days. In addition to this struggle, CUPE 3903 has had to recently deal with other burdens. On 27th October, CUPE 3903 was put under the administration of CUPE National, meaning that the administrator appointed by CUPE National, Lynn McDougall, now has the ability to make all decisions for the local; this eliminates the power of the local’s elected executive as well as any semblance of democratic control from the rank and file membership.

While the sessionals at CUPE 3902 reached a tentative agreement with the UofT administration the day before they would be in a legal strike position, the fact that they achieved a strong 70% strike mandate vote put their employer in a position in which they knew they were going to be facing a unified force if they failed to make concessions to some of the union’s demands. While the TAs at CUPE 3906 also provided their bargaining team with a strong strike mandate vote, the bargaining team decided to not release a detailed breakdown of the strike mandate vote results. In the past, McMaster has often used the results of these votes to try to divide the memberships of CUPE 3906 and CAW 555 (which represent support staff on campus) between those who vote Yes and No, as well as between those who vote and those who don’t in cases where the strike mandate vote is strong but the voter turnout is seemingly low. Unfortunately, McMaster’s attacks on CUPE 3906 have gone far beyond these attempts to divide workers, with the employer attempting to eliminate several provisions in their previous collective agreement, which expired on August 31, 2009, including eroding “student funding guarantees”, increasing “tuition by the maximum allowable by law”, “making TAs pay for their teaching materials (such as the course textbook)”, and proposing “a collective agreement that will result in reduced benefits and less take home pay for every member” according to the 3906 bargaining team. Furthermore, 3906 strikers have been verbally harassed on their picket lines by administrators, they have been sent mass e-mails encouraging them to scab, and were issued a “best offer” on 31st October that made “several backward steps removed from the offer that” was “presented less than 10 hours shy of the strike deadline” on October 27th. This “best offer” would have the effect of “resetting benefits funding to 2006 collective agreement levels” while increasing the wage rate by a measly five per cent per hour. According to the bargaining team, “the employer made no effort to address the core issues of workload, benefits and access to positions for fifth-year doctoral students”.

While the “best offer” was rejected by a vote of the membership at a General Membership Meeting held on November 1st, the bargaining team decided to hold a formal ratification vote the following week to send a message to the employer that their membership would not accept the current offer, in the hope that this would help to expedite the bargaining process and get the employer to give in to some of their demands. Unfortunately, 58% of the membership voted in favour of acceping the employer’s offer, forcing the union to cease strike activity and forcing the bargaining team to negotiate a back-to-work protocal with the employer the next day. The back-to-work protocol that McMaster insisted upon included a 7.7% reduction in paid hours for the term, representing a loss of 10 paid hours, or approximately $350 for a 130-hour position. The bargaining team and the executive were “both shocked and deeply concerned by the contents of this protocol, which are unprecedented both at McMaster and in the sector”. However, despite the unfavourable result of the ratification vote and the punitive back-to-work protocol, the bargaining team still believes “that there is far more positive to take away from this experience than there is negative”. They believe that through the strike, though it only lasted a week, they have built greater solidarity within the union and with other on-campus unions as well as shown the university that 3906 is a force to be reckoned with.

When viewed in the context of the other struggles waged by contract faculty, TAs, and students in Ontario’s university system, it becomes obvious that the attacks against CUPE 3906 are linked to broader structural problems in Ontario’s university system and the university system in general. These problems are linked to the crisis of capitalism, with many universities losing money during the current capitalist crisis due to the exposure of their endowment funds to the stock market, which compounded the ongoing problem of a lack of government funding for post-secondary education. It is university workers and students that are paying for the mistakes of university administrators and their allies in government. Workers and students across Ontario and the rest of Canada must support the members of CUPE 3906 who walked the picket lines this November, and all the other university-sector workers who have continued to fight for their demands despite the attempts of university administrators to make their workers and students pay for the crisis.