Woman in a light coloured head scarf and winter coat in a crowd of people

This afternoon, contract academic workers at Carleton University are interrupting a meeting of the university’s Board of Governors to deliver a letter calling on the board to address serious labour concerns on campus.

“Negotiations have been drawn out beyond what is reasonable, and it’s up to the Board of Governors to take steps to avoid a strike later this month,” said Noreen Cauley-Le Fevre, president of the CUPE 4600. “While our members live in poverty, the university is rejecting reasonable demands we tabled that would ensure wages keep up with the cost of living, and which would ensure quality education for students by setting student-to-TA ratios, which exist at other universities.”

The university and CUPE 4600 are currently in conciliation and will be in a legal strike or lockout position as of March 25. Without the roughly 3000 contract educators, including teaching assistants and contract instructors, the university would be unable to hold classes successfully, particularly at the height of the marking and exam period.

One sticking point is the proposed Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) language, which would ensure wages keep up with inflation. Over the last decade, teaching assistant wages have fallen behind the cost of living in Ottawa by more than 10%. Today, a teaching assistant at Carleton is paid up to $11,502 per year, a small fraction of the cost of living in Ottawa. Meanwhile, contract instructors, who teach many of the undergraduate courses available at Carleton, have among the lowest wages in the province and are paid 15% lower than their counterparts down the road at the University of Ottawa.  

“It is true that some contract educators are also students, but this work is what we do in order to pay the rent and feed our families,” says Cauley-Le Fevre. “More importantly, these jobs are what make education accessible to people from a broad range of backgrounds. Over the last decade, Carleton University has made education less affordable and access to education less equitable. That’s a stark contrast to the reputation this university had earned in previous decades and is a shameful change.”

The lack of a living wage at Carleton seriously affects the university’s academic workers. According to the USC-Food Centre (the on-campus food bank at Carleton), 80% of students who access the centre are graduate students, who make up the majority of teaching assistants. However, graduate students make up only 6.7% of Carleton’s student body.

The work of teaching assistants varies but commonly includes marking, running tutorials, and supervising labs. Contract instructors develop and teach courses, including giving lectures and setting exams. All contract educators at Carleton are members of CUPE 4600, the largest union at Carleton University. CUPE 4600 and Carleton have been in negotiations since September 2022.