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  March 24, 2015

Teaching Assistants Reject University of Toronto Offer

Margaret Atwood, Stephen Lewis, and Naomi Klein among those who tweeted, supported, or refused to cross the picket lines of striking contract staff at U of T, says Omar Sirri, PhD student
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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

York University and University of Toronto are still out on strike. As it nears the end of the school year in two weeks, University of Toronto made an offer to end the strike by increasing the minimum funding package from $15,000 to $17,000 along with some benefits. But on the weekend, with about one third of the six thousand casting their vote, the teaching graduate assistants and contract instructors rejected the offer with a hundred and nine vote margin.

Now joining me to discuss the latest developments is Omar Sirri. Omar is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Toronto. He's also a member of the outreach team for the strike committee CUPE 3902. Thank you so much for joining us, Omar.


PERIES: Tell us, this is very curious, now. The negotiating team for CUPE 3902 actually recommended that the striking workers accept the deal. So then why did they reject it?

SIRRI: So, I mean, that's a good question. They actually, in fact, the bargaining team that reached a tentative agreement with the university administration in the middle of last week was, in fact, split. There were a couple of members who did not endorse the tentative agreement that was brought to the members for consideration late Wednesday evening, and then to a membership meeting on Friday. So in fact, it was not a unanimous endorsement of this proposal.

At a membership meeting on Friday, this past Friday, we saw over fifteen hundred people attend that meeting and decide whether or not to send that agreement to a ratification vote. So it's this two-step process. So the first step was deciding, for the members at that meeting, whether or not to send that agreement to ratification. To the general membership. To those who weren't at that meeting, more broadly, the broader membership. And by a fifty vote margin, 789 to 739, the members who attended that meeting voted in favor of sending the agreement to ratification. It was the members' opinion, by a slim margin, that it would be beneficial for the larger membership, those who were not in attendance as well as those in attendance, to consider the agreement and whether, decide whether or not to rafity it.

In that second vote that lasted from Friday to Sunday, and concluded Sunday at 4:00PM, the wider membership, those at that meeting and those who weren't in attendance, so that full number was correct, was over two thousand people, which is an unprecedented number of voters for this current strike action that we're taking at the moment. In that vote, that's correct, the margin between the two sides of that vote was over a hundred, but that, in fact, the agreement was convincingly defeated. It was members' opinion, they were of the opinion, that in fact the agreement did not do enough to alleviate their concerns. It has to do specifically with the inability of that tentative agreement to address concerns around structural deficiencies in the graduate student funding model as it currently stands. And the final point I'll make on this before I finish or close is it would be incorrect to say that the agreement saw, called for an increase to the minimum guaranteed funding package. This is the issue at hand, currently. The agreement says nothing about the minimum guaranteed funding package.

In fact, what the university administration is attempting to do with that tentative agreement, and why our members are so concerned with it to actually, in fact, reject it, is that the university administration put forward a fund in which those who are on a minimum guaranteed funding package, which is currently $15,000, or $8,000 below the poverty line for the city of Toronto, those students could apply to a fund. A top-up fund, essentially, to alleviate their concerns around financial insecurity. That fund would be administered by the union.

But at no time in that agreement, there is no language in that agreement, or that tentative agreement, that guarantees each student an increase to their minimum guaranteed funding package. So what students are currently calling for is language in that agreement that guarantees them access to a minimum guaranteed funding package that gets close, at least close somewhat close or closer, to the poverty line for the City of Toronto.

PERIES: Thank you for clarifying that, because you wouldn't know that from the mainstream reporting in Canada whatsoever. One question that really stands out for me is why there is such a small turnout to vote in such an important decision that affects everyone in that union?

SIRRI: I mean, I … I'm of two minds, two minds, frankly, about that question. In one sense, I appreciate the concern. I mean, it's, we're seeing over two thousand people attend, which is a healthy number in one sense. But in another sense, you're right, about thirty percent of our general membership.

But the fact of the matter is that we facilitated, we did all that we could to facilitate participation in this vote. Not only did we facilitate, ordered buses for people to attend the membership meeting on the Friday, paid for daycare for members who had children who were worried that they couldn't attend because of daycare. We also opened balloting on the Friday early so that those that had religious, observed religious obligations, let's say, on the Friday and into the Saturday were able to vote early, to then leave the meeting early. Then finally, the vote was open from Friday through Sunday, three days in which our members were able to vote.

So in one sense it is a lower turnout, perhaps, and you know, we all would like to see a hundred percent in any election. Federal, local, what have you, and our union is no different. But at the same time, it is the healthiest turnout we have seen, frankly, in this whole process from start to finish, and we're proud of that.

From the get-go, from the start of this dispute with the university administration, they have been calling for the last three weeks for our membership to send an agreement to ratification. They said, if only the union would be responsible enough to send the agreement to ratification, we're confident it would be passed. Well, after three weeks an agreement was put to the membership. Those in attendance at the meeting decided to send that agreement to the membership, to the wider membership for ratification, doing exactly what the university administration had hoped for, and the result was clear. A convincing defeat of the agreement that was put together and put forward. And now we continue the strike going into week four, and the university administration has to address these structural issues in the guaranteed student funding package that have existed for years now, and they have obfuscated and evaded. And it's now time in this strike for them to address them.

PERIES: Omar, tell us what's next. In terms of the union, what are you going to be doing?

SIRRI: As I've mentioned previously, we have been getting immense amount of support, not only from the undergraduate students and the faculty here on campus at the university, but those outside and in the wider community have been showing their very strong support. Including, even, one very, perhaps famous, individuals in the Canadian and international community. Margaret Atwood, a famous, obviously famous author, has been tweeting her support, calling on the university administration to return to the negotiating table. Naomi Klein has done the same thing, has refused to cross picket lines here at the University of Toronto.

And just today only an hour ago, Stephen Lewis, a member of the Order of Canada, former UN Ambassador for Canada, released a statement stating that he is cancelling his long-scheduled, long-standing talk, or lecture, here at the Munk School, scheduled for the Munk School this week. He is cancelling that, refusing to cross picket lines here at the University of Toronto. And more than that, in fact, calling on others. Calling on others with speaking engagements here at the university to cancel those, and calling on them to endorse, not only not to cross picket lines, but endorse our strike action and our call for a real, structural revamping of the graduate student funding model here.

That being said, it's also interesting to note today in addition to Stephen Lewis' very strong endorsement we've finally seen, after more than three weeks of silence, from the University President Meric Gertler, who has been effectively in hiding on this issue, frankly, to put it in blunt terms, has finally come out today. When the tentative agreement was rejected by the graduate students over the weekend, has come out to give interviews to the mainstream media. The CBC, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star have all been granted access to speak with the President. Hopefully our union is granted the same access to him, as well. You know, time will tell on that.

PERIES: And what is he saying, Omar?

SIRRI: It's very, frankly, it's very odd. He seems to be propagating this line that we're one of the highest-paid graduate students in the country, if not the highest paid. And he continues to refer to these wages, these hourly wages, which in effect, which you and I have discussed previously. In effect have no real effect on our funding package, because they're built into a funding package that is capped at $15,000. And yet he has returned to this talking point, that is effectively, for all informed viewers, informed readers, dead on arrival as a talking point. It actually has no resonance, because people who understand how the funding model works know that the hourly wage is not the issue, it is the minimum guaranteed funding package, which is capped at $15,000.

So it's very odd, frankly, and peculiar, for the university president to come out today and tout these talking points that were debunked, you know, two and a half weeks ago, and that his colleagues no longer use themselves. So you know, rather than spreading misleading, disingenuous statements through the mainstream media attempting to demonize his own students, we're urging the President to call on his own team to return to the table, negotiating table, and resolve these long-standing structural deficiencies in the graduate funding model, and enshrine in any agreement language that states any new benefits are guaranteed as per-member rights.

If you are going to be providing new benefits to students, we're asking for one thing and one thing only: write it down. That's how contracts work. You put it on paper, you enshrine it, you codify it, and you ensure that students who are, who you claim are benefiting from it, actually do. Enshrined in the contract as per-member rights. If they do that, we'll be back in classroom, you know, as soon as, well … as soon as that's done, frankly, because that's a sticking point, and the university administration knows it.

PERIES: Omar Sirri, a graduate student at the University of Toronto. Thank you so much for joining us today.

SIRRI: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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