What striking CUPE 3903 members have to say to Students

(Courtesy of Nabneel Sarma)

On Feb 26, around 3,000 academic workers at York University walked off the job, demanding better pay and job stability in the face of inflating living costs in Toronto. The members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 officially went on strike at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 26, after negotiations with York’s administration failed to reach an agreement. 

A rally took place by the York University subway station that day, and picket lines have been set up at various entrances around the university since. Members gathered at the campus’ main entrances to call for action as negotiations continued, blocking main vehicle and bus traffic at Main Gate at York Blvd. and Northwest Gate at Pioneer Village Station. 

In a video addressed to his students, Mahyar Mohaghegh, a tutorial leader at York who picketed at Pioneer Village Station this week, explains his opinion on why contract faculty workers at York chose to strike and their reality. “We have a lot of people who are contract faculty, who are basically living paycheque to paycheque. They’re living very precarious lives – they have mortgages, they have families and they’re basically doing what a full-time professor does, except they’re paid a lot less.”  

Many on the picket line have cited their frustrations with low pay and job instability over the last few years, including Braedon Balko, a teaching assistant and graduate student at York. “The main thing is that, due to the rising costs of living and the extreme rates of inflation, the salary that we receive, even with other graduate funding, doesn’t go a long way,” says Balko. “Groceries, especially, have been really biting into the amount of money we’re making. I’m fortunate enough that I have some familial support, but I know a lot of my fellow graduate students don’t. Some of them are living in really poor conditions, and many of them are using food banks to survive.” 

Zoe Newman, a member of the CUPE 3903’s bargaining team negotiating with York’s administration, said her experiences at the table had been difficult over the past few days. “We’re dealing with an employer who, either doesn’t really know our collective agreements or doesn’t really seem invested in making things better for workers or for the university as a whole,” states Newman. “And often what we see is just the employer kind of stalling or making tiny little changes and not actually dealing with the kind of major issues that are causing a crisis. Really, we’re at a crisis level in a lot of cases.” 

According to Balko, striking had been the union’s last resort.  “The bargaining team has been bargaining for months and months and months,” says Balko. “All of us grad students have been following the meetings and the things that have been asked for are, in my opinion, very reasonable. The monetary increases that we’re asking for still do not meet inflation. 

“We are actually losing money every year regardless. So it’s not a matter of making money or winning money. It’s actually a matter of how much we are willing to lose and still be able to survive,” he concludes.

For Newman, she believes that the strike was a sacrifice to be made. “I think [this strike] is certainly something that we have seen, as the bargaining team for 3903, as necessary at this point because there’s so little happening at the bargaining table.” 

According to the Inflation Calculator on the Bank of Canada’s website, the rate of inflation between September 2020 and September 2023 was about 12.5 per cent. Wage increases for many jobs had been capped at one per cent for the past three years due to the Ford government passing Bill 124 in 2019, which has been repealed in recent weeks after the Ontario Appeal Court deemed it unconstitutional. 

“The thing that’s crazy to me is the amount of money being spent,” Balko states. “If you look up the Auditor General’s Report, there is an enormous amount of money being spent on administration. They’ve gotten huge raises, some up to like 20 per cent in the last couple of years. They’re spending money breaking ground on campuses in Markham, on a medical school, and capital projects, but they do not want to share the wealth.”

Balko also highlights growing solidarity and connections being made amongst many striking union members and support from the community. “I started just as a picketer, but I was trained as a strike captain because we needed the help, and it’s a really good leadership role and opportunity to meet a lot of people.”

 Newman adds: “On one hand, being on strike means there’s a lot more to deal with. There are a lot of details to figure out because everybody tries to pull together to make sure the picket line is safe and that people on the picket lines have what they need. I have more time to devote to bargaining and more time to devote to strategy and to building solidarity within the local community.”

When asked what they have to say to York’s administration, Newman states, “York works because we do. The members of 3903 do more than 50% of the teaching at York University. We are the ones who are actually in the classroom doing the work that a university is supposed to. We are the ones who actually have relationships with students. 

 “If the York administration actually cares about students and actually cares about its workers, it will show up to the table and bring us a serious offer.”

The last time York University workers went on strike was March 2018. The strike lasted nearly five months — the longest post-secondary strike in Canadian history. This garnered frustration from many students towards both CUPE 3903 and the York administration, who had reached an impasse in negotiations. Students in the past were not able to access help or receive communication from their instructors due to strike policies, and many courses and co-op placements at York were delayed indefinitely or cancelled due to the labour disruption. Around July, the Ford government issued and passed the Urgent Priorities Act, which ended the strike and forced union workers back to work without a resolution to their issues.

It has been just over one week into the strike and little progress on negotiations has been made. According to CUPE 3903, “bargaining has stalled due to the employer’s reluctance to adjust their wage proposals.” 

In Mohaghegh’s video, he states that he chose to go on strike to fight for a good life in Canada, just like other unions before him did in the past. “I can’t go back in time and say, ‘hey, thank you for protesting for me.’ The only thing I can do is model them. That’s the only way working-class people have been able to get better wages and benefits and all the stuff we used to enjoy in this country.” 

For Balko, he asks for the school to come back out to the table and bargain with the union. “My response to York’s administration would be, ‘bargain with us, come out with a fair offer, or see how much the school really needs us to run’,” states Balko.  

“As for undergrads, I feel and understand this awful predicament you’ve been in. The only thing I can do is ask you to please understand our position as well. Our teaching conditions are your learning conditions, and we want your learning conditions to be good, and for that to be possible, our teaching conditions have to be a little bit better. We understand how stressful and anxiety-inducing this is. But you can also help put pressure on York University so that this strike can end. None of us want to be out here. But we have to be.”

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By Nabneel Sarma


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Students are suffering will you refund the students their tuition fees 😒


I assume you’re asking the school to refund tuition, yeah? Because the contract faculty aren’t the ones stopping the bargaining—nor does tuition increase their wages. WORKERS are suffering. You may be a student now, but you won’t always be. I assume you would also want the solidarity you need to live a reasonable life when your employers don’t care whether you can afford to pay rent.