The Beginnings

Our Union was the first legally-recognized union of Teaching Assistants in North America. In 1973, the University administration recommended a 6% salary increase for academic staff and we were not included. The Graduate Students’ Union tried to get the University Administration to bargain with them, but the Employer refused.

And so, on June 6, 1973 a group of 7 TAs met to form what later became CUPE 3902. Together with a band of committed volunteers and with the generous financial support of the GSU, they organized to form our Union, a first for student academic workers in Canada.

Before we organized ourselves into our Union, there were some 444 pay categories. In some departments, members were paid by the hour, in others by papers marked. Some worked for as little as a dollar a year! We could be fired without cause, and we had no avenue for appeal. Hiring was, in many cases, an exercise in patronage.

The drive for a Union first met with success at Victoria College. The TAs at Victoria were granted a certificate as Local One, Graduate Assistants’ Association (GAA). Since the Arts Departments were transferred from the Colleges to the University in 1974, the Victoria unit ceased to have any employees. As a result, a Collective Agreement was never entered into and representation rights lapsed. At the same time, the centre of energy shifted to the main UofT campus. We were certified, as Local Two, GAA, in 1975 after a long legal battle and a certification vote.

In our first Collective Agreement, we reduced the 444 pay categories to three, and ensured that everyone working as a TA or Instructor was fairly paid. Hiring procedures were established and a grievance procedure was formulated to solve problems and to settle disputes and differences of opinion between TAs and Course Instructors and the Employer.

At the same time, TAs and Contract Faculty were organizing at York (now Local 3903 of CUPE) and Ryerson (3904). The Union grew rapidly, if chaotically, in the early years, organizing TAs at Lakehead (3905), TAs and contract faculty at McMaster (3906), and Graduate Assistants at OISE (3907)

A New National Union

In 1980, we became the Canadian Union of Educational Workers (CUEW). CUEW eventually organized Contract Faculty at Trent (3908), TAs and student Instructors at Manitoba (3909), Contract Faculty at Ottawa (which disaffiliated in 1992), and Contract Faculty at Athabasca (3911).

By the early 1990s, CUEW had grown to be the dominant union representing student and contract academic employees in the post-secondary sector. New organizing drives were launched which yielded two more locals — Dalhousie (3912) and Guelph (3913). There were more demands from other TAs and Contract Faculty for organizing drives.

However, CUEW had entered a financial and leadership crisis which resulted in merger discussions with CUPE. By joining the largest public sector union in Canada, we are now part of a much more powerful and politically active organization which has resources far beyond those of CUEW. Although we have a similar degree of autonomy locally as we did under CUEW, we now have a higher national profile, and can join with other CUPE locals in the university sector to improve the situation for student academic workers across the nation.

Since joining CUPE, our Union has engaged in several activities, with substantial financial support from CUPE National. We fought the ejection of international students from the OHIP system. Although we eventually lost this fight, our intervention helped to reduce the price and increase the coverage of the private for-profit UHIP system which international students are required to purchase. We continue to press the Employer to pay these premiums as part of the Collective Agreement.

More recently, we fought against changes to the Employment Insurance system that made most of our members ineligible for EI even though all pay into the system.

Collective Bargaining - A Brief History

We have signed 19 Collective Agreements with the UofT for what is now Unit 1 since we organized. On four occasions, we had to strike to achieve a fair contract.

In January 2000, our four-week strike got us an additional subsequent appointment for PhD candidates (all of our job security improvements have come through strike action), a doubling of the dental rebate, progressive discipline, improved training/professional development, improved overwork language, sector-leading wage increases, and major improvements to guaranteed graduate funding.

The strike in January 2000 centred on the issue of tuition fees. While we were unable to achieve tuition fee waivers or reductions, our actions at the bargaining table and on the picket lines created the political momentum for major changes that began in 2001. The creation of real funding packages that all grad students can count on had been proposed by CUPE 3902 and the GSU for many years.

But only through our strike was the UofT forced to take action. In 2001-2002, we were able to get these funding guarantees written into the Agreement. While the new funding arrangements are not ideal from our perspective (for instance, they exclude senior PhD students), they do represent a major improvement to the funding structure at the UofT.

Most recently, we went out on strike in February of 2015. As a result of this action we received two new funds – the Tuition Assistance Fund and the Graduate Student Bursary Fund — the first designed to reduce the financial burden on upper year students beyond the funded cohort and the second to give assistance to our members on the lowest funding packages. Our members who took to the picket lines in 2015 and in years previously can be proud of these achievements; it is through such action we have won better working conditions for our members and better learning conditions for our students.

Our Growing Union

Starting in 1997, the Union began to work with non-student instructional staff to join CUPE 3902. After two applications, and an extended process in front of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, sessionals finally certified in the summer of 2004 with nearly 90% in favour of joining. Just prior to the issuance of the sessionals’ certificate, the Union worked with contract instructional staff at Victoria University, successfully certifying in the summer of 2004 with only two votes cast against the Union. Both of these units negotiated a first contract in 2004-2005, a second contract in 2006-2007, a third in 2009-2010 and, most recently, in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

In April of 2011 course instructors, teaching assistants and continuing education instructors at the University of St. Michael’s College voted to join our Union as Unit 4. Members working at St. Mike’s ratified their first collective agreement in 2012, after a short and successful one-week strike for better job-security language.

In April 2013, Postdoctoral Fellows voted to join CUPE 3902 as Unit 5. The long and contentious first round of bargaining saw postdoctoral fellows vote down a tentative agreement and later vote 81% in favour of strike action. Prompted largely by the strike mandate, a new tentative agreement was reached and ratified in the winter of 2015-16. 

In October of 2019, Instructors at New College in International Foundation Program and International Summer Academy voted 100% in favour of unionizing to become Unit 6, were recognized by the Labour Board in June 2020, and ratified their first contract in January 2022. Most recently, student-workers in CUPE 3907, OISE Graduate Assistants, voted to merge with CUPE 3902 in Spring 2022, to form Unit 7.

Our Role in the Larger Labour Movement

One of the advantages we gained in affiliating with CUPE was a connection to the rest of the Canadian and international labour movements. Currently, we are affiliated with the Ontario University Workers’ Coordinating Committee (Ontario CUPE university locals), CUPE District Labour Council (Toronto CUPE locals), Toronto and York Region Labour Council (Toronto and York Region unions), CUPE Ontario Division (Ontario CUPE locals), CUPE National (all CUPE locals), and the Canadian Labour Congress (unions across Canada). In addition, we belong to the Coalition of Graduate Employees’ Unions (CGEU), the Canadian CGEU, and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour (COCAL), which connect us with others in our own sector.

We also work with the Canadian Federation of Students and faculty and friends of Ontario universities. CUPE 3902 Unit 3 (Sessional Faculty) joined the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) , which includes permanent faculty as well as contract teaching staff. There is no contradiction in belonging both to CUPE and to CAUT. Unit 5 (Postdocs) joined CAUT in 2013. CAUT provides UofT Sessionals and Postdocs with some prestige and professional fellowship, and additional resources such as legal advice, research, and lobbying efforts.

On campus, we work with a coalition of students’ unions and other UofT employees, such as library workers, service and facilities workers, administrative staff, and the Graduate Assistants at OISE. We work together to oppose tuition increases, to minimize the effects of provincial cuts on employees at the UofT, and to ensure that university governance favours both students and employees.

We have been working with student groups around the “flat fees” issue over the past few years.

Finally, we coordinate our bargaining with other campus unions and used that strength to make important gains for all workers on the UofT campus.