Paul Whyte | CUPE Staff

CUPE members at post-secondary institutions across Canada are fighting back against the harsh exploitation of academic workers.

Low wages, misleading hours of work, and a lack of transparency in job postings have marred the reputation of universities and highlight the hypocrisy between what they teach and what they practice. Academic workers, including teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs), markers and demonstrators, have witnessed the steady erosion of their working conditions.

Legal loopholes pave the way for universities to replace good academic jobs with precarious, low-wage positions.

“At Dalhousie University, the employer sometimes takes job descriptions and work previously done at the higher TA hourly rate and uses them in job descriptions and work at the lower marker and demonstrator hourly rate. Our 2022 strike brought these rates closer together. Marker hourly rates went from 66% of TA rates, to 80%,” explains CUPE 3912 President Cameron Ells.

Since many graduate degree programs have a mandatory requirement for students to also be academic workers, students are forced to accept low-paid, precarious, highly predatory jobs to complete their studies. But these workers are now turning the tide at the bargaining table and beyond.

CUPE has led the charge to rebalance power within major post-secondary institutions, including McMaster University, the University of Toronto, and Dalhousie University.

Three-week strike for fair wages

More than 1,500 CUPE 3912 members at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were out picketing for three weeks starting October 2022, protesting against wages that have not kept up with those of their peers at other universities or with the cost of living. They had been in collective bargaining since November 2020, but the employer was still refusing to correct a large disparity between wages at Dalhousie and those at other Canadian top universities.

“Across Canada, academic workers are leading the fight for fairness,” says Ells. “The collective resources and experiences available to workers through organized labour, as demonstrated with strikes in Ontario, at Dalhousie University, and elsewhere, demonstrate a capacity to make significant improvements in our working conditions.” 

Worker engagement that has proven to be the most impactful when fighting for collective gains relies on member-to-member relationships, empowerment, and trust building.

“We came together as a local union family and leaned on our fellow CUPE allies nationally to build massive support and momentum needed to secure a significantly improved collective agreement,” says Jean-Philippe Bourgeois, CUPE 3912 vice-president of part-time faculty at Dalhousie University. “When we are dealing with massive, wealthy, corporate entities like Dal, it takes us all coming together to demand and make necessary change. We had the support of CUPE’s 715,000 members, CUPE staff, and national labour allies who fought for justice right alongside us.”

As a result of workers’ mobilization, the employer was forced to significantly improve the offer for these workers — some of the lowest paid in the U15 (Canada’s top research universities). The new four-year collective agreement grows base part-time academic instructor wages by 23%, TA wages by 23%, and marker/demonstrator wages by a whopping 44%.

Labour and student unions converge

Allyship in labour has long proven to be foundational to securing real change that positively impacts workers and society at large.

At Dalhousie University, CUPE 3912 found a powerful ally in the student movement, namely the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU). 

During the historic strike at the university, the DSU acted in solidarity with CUPE by educating students about the strike, encouraged their support of workers who are often students too, and even hosted political demonstrations to help maintain pressure on the employer to negotiate fairly. 

“Together with the DSU, the faculty association, and others, we aligned students and workers to demand that Dal do better,” says Ells. “The employer was influenced by the voices of those who pay tuition today and perhaps alumni donations tomorrow. Our united voices made an impact locally and across Canada. Our union and our actions successfully challenged the perceived status quo.”

This solidarity has been further galvanized by COVID-19, where workplace and other fundamental rights, particularly those concerning health and safety, were ardently tested. While the specific sectoral expertise and goals of unions may differ, there is an overarching interest in the public good that unites them.

“We are all in this together — when our rights are in jeopardy, it is imperative that we all rally together to defend each other,” says Bourgeois.

Labour tensions across Canada are coming to a head as workers demand not only improved wages to compete with inflation, but also better working conditions overall. Staffing and service levels, quality of life and access to paid leave, scheduling and flexibility to work remotely are top of mind for workers, particularly those who persevered on the front lines during the pandemic. Young workers in particular, like those in the post-secondary sector, are looking to connect with meaningful and decent work.

So, it is no surprise that during this time of record inflation, stagnated public sector wages, and soaring corporate profits, workers are uniting and finding common cause between themselves and others, in the pursuit of public good. The odds may be stacked, but the collective power of workers, and their ability to organize and mobilize reigns supreme.