Mohammad Akbar

f you’re a teaching assistant or contract instructor at Carleton University, you may have heard that your union, CUPE 4600, is in the midst of bargaining collective agreements. 

Collective agreements for both these groups expired on Aug. 31. Students who are teaching assistants or contract instructors have a great deal on the line each time bargaining occurs. A number of important issues are determined by bargaining – and before that by proposals brought forward by the bargaining committee, elected by union members, as well the committee representing university management.

No agreement has been reached yet, which could mean strike action in the future.

Though potentially disruptive to students, the right to strike is a necessary one to ensure that the rights of both students and educators are protected on campus.

What does this all mean?

Though potentially disruptive to students, the right to strike is a necessary one to ensure that the rights of both students and educators are protected on campus. There is a long history of unions on university campuses bargaining for collective agreements, as well as strikes and strike mandates. 

The first drives to organize Canadian unions for teaching assistant and contract instructor workers began in 1973 with the Graduate Assistants’ Association. This morphed into the Canadian Union of Education Workers, which finally merged into the much larger Canadian Union of Public Employees.

These unions were founded and organized to protect teaching assistants and contract instructors, who traditionally  fill some of the most precarious roles in academia. This continues to this day, where there are already significant reports of students unable to return to studies due to cuts to OSAP, the attempted annihilation of student services through the Student Choice Initiative, and various other measures put in by the Ford government that jeopardize resources and funding for student groups and limit the abilities of unions to collectively bargain.

Of course, the Ford Government has also introduced Bill 124, a measure meant to restrict public sector bargaining. As CUPE 3906 at McMaster points out, this bill is setting the tone for the future of collective bargaining and needs to be resisted as much as possible.

ollective agreements bring many benefits to students at various institutions. At York University and the University of Toronto, for example, tuition fee grants for students are indexed, meaning that funds increase automatically each year. 

In addition, wages for unionized teaching assistants are generally higher than their non-union equivalent. There are rules in place to protect workers from harassment and unfair treatment.

The right to strike is fundamental to securing these victories. Strikes are an essential tactic to force an employer’s hand. For post-secondary institutions, precarious labour is a way to hold workers in place and take as much labour as possible while paying as little as possible. There is no reason for the modern post-secondary institution, rooted in anti-worker sentiments and focused on breaking down organized labour, to want to willingly provide benefits to workers. 

Even when the government legislates workers back to work (in contravention of collective bargaining), as they did at York University in 2018, the result is a significant increase in worker benefits and rights. 

Carleton also has a long history of students, workers, and student workers standing up for the rights of the many against the wishes of the few. CUPE 2424, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, and CUPE 4600 have consistently pushed for better for their members, while taking on a seemingly hostile administration focused on crushing worker power. While there is a new university president who has promised to do things differently than the previous administration, it remains to be seen what the new perspective will mean for bargaining.

Ultimately though, the material interests of workers and employers differ, and we cannot expect them to give us what we need and want out of the goodness of their hearts. The only way for workers to protect and expand their rights on is through collective action.

Mohammad Akbar is the director of communications for the Carleton University Graduate Student Association.

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