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Dear U of T: What Is "Generous" About Living Below the Poverty Line?

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Through multiple statements to the media, Cheryl Regehr, the Provost at the University of Toronto, has said that a proposed agreement for Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Course Instructors (CIs) was "generous." She expresses her "disappointment" that last week more than 90 per cent of the 1,000 members present at the meeting voted to reject the proposed agreement. What she fails to mention is why the agreement was rejected, which was because it fails to address the core concern of Unit 1 members -- the $15,000 funding package that currently sits more than $8,000 below the poverty line.

Back in November, TAs and CIs overwhelmingly voted to endorse strike action -- again more than 90 per cent in favour -- in a strike vote that saw the largest voter turnout for contract academic locals in Canadian history. Since that time, the University Administration has known that the funding package was a central issue in this round of bargaining. This should be no surprise to them, considering it has been more than seven years since the package was last increased, despite significant rising costs of living in the city of Toronto.

Rather than negotiate seriously, the University Administration waited until the final hours before the strike deadline to address the issue of funding, ultimately putting forward a collective agreement that offered no direct increases to the funding package but included, instead, the creation of a new fund that TAs and CIs could apply to in order to receive some money back.

The bargaining team unanimously endorsed the agreement because it would, at least, put some money in TAs' and CIs' hands even if only on a one-time basis. The agreement was then presented in good faith at the membership meeting where it was rejected on the basis that a fund offering unspecified payouts did not address the core issue of an increase to the funding package itself.

The University Administration, led by Dr. Regehr, continues to propagate the idea that this is a "generous" deal. We find it peculiar that a person who makes close to a quarter of a million dollars -- $247,000 and change to be more precise -- suggests that those who do the bulk of the teaching at the University of Toronto should be made to live below the poverty line.

While Dr. Regehr has seen multiple salary increases since 2008, TAs and CIs have been offered zero increases to their funding package in the same amount of time.

We wonder if Dr. Regehr would be able to live a month in our shoes. We invite her to try.

It is disingenuous for Dr. Regehr to call for yet another vote on the collective agreement. Our bylaws were followed to the letter, and the administration knows that. We have had, and continue to have, widespread, democratic engagement from our members. Our members are engaging in the purest form of democracy by coming out in full force picketing and demonstrating, calling on the University Administration to return to the bargaining table where our own representatives are waiting. These democratic processes are in stark contrast to the University Administration and Board of Governors meetings that are held behind closed doors with campus police standing guard.

The rhetoric Dr. Regehr offers about wage increases is smoke and mirrors. She knows full well that, since most TA work is offered as a part of the guaranteed funding package, any proposed wage increases will not be realized by our members because the $15,000 funding package is itself not increasing

When it comes to meeting the concerns of TAs and CIs, the University Administration has misled and dodged and defended an unsustainable status quo.

Instead of trying to score political points in the media by offering up misleading reasoning for a rejected agreement, we urge the Provost to return to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair deal for graduate students. The University Administration has made all students, undergraduate and graduate alike, suffer enough.

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