Faced with the prospect of being forced back to work, striking workers at the University of British Columbia are taking firm action.
On the afternoon of Wed., March 12, the BC provincial government passed legislation sending two striking UBC unions back to work for a 20-day "cooling-off period."
Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2278, representing teaching assistants has been on strike since Feb. 24. CUPE Local 2950, representing clerical, secretarial, administrative, and library staff, among others, joined them on the picket lines on March 7. A third union, CUPE 116, representing tradesmen and university maintenance workers has expressed support for the striking unions and is preparing for job action of its own.
CUPE 2950 has been without a contract since March 31, 2002 and CUPE 2278 has been in negotiations with the university since last August.
Among the contract issues for CUPE 2950 are concessions regarding picketing rights, and wage adjustments. Union Office Secretary Leslie Hodson claimed that UBC President Martha C. Piper had a recent salary increase of approximately 23 per cent, and the vice-president research had a raise of approximately 42 per cent, while the university's budget doesn't appear to have room for salary increases for lower-ranking workers.
"There seems to be a lot of money for high-level positions," she pointed out.
CUPE 2278 is primarily looking for wage increases for UBC TAs. While the union hoped to negotiate for wages equal to the Canadian average, the university initially offered no increase over the next three years. They then conceded to a ten per cent increase over the same period of time, which will put UBC TAs on par with their Simon Fraser University counterparts, assuming there is no increase offered at SFU before 2006.
Also on the table for CUPE 2278 are protection against tuition increases and restoration of health benefits.
The Alma Mater Society, UBC's student organization which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, has come out in support of TA job action.
"It's been pretty disruptive and it's getting worse," admitted AMS President Oana Chirila, adding that picketers had blocked the main gate to the campus on Wednesday, prohibiting transit access. "I guess students won't be able to take the bus home."
Classes taught by TAs have been cancelled for the last two weeks, and many assignments and exams have gone ungraded. Students are confused as to the state of their academic situations.
"There's a lot of misinformation as to academic rights and responsibilities," Chirila reported.
In spite of the difficulties, the AMS has supported the striking TAs both verbally and financially, pledging $15,000 to help out CUPE 2278. Of that, $10,000 has gone into the union's strike fund, and $5,000 has been put toward initiatives such as media advertising and rallies.
While the AMS supports job action, its position is clearly not that of the entire student body. Posts to the AMS online forums offer a variety of opinions, with students stating both their approval and disapproval of the CUPE 2278 strike. The few posts regarding the CUPE 2950 strike suggest that it hasn't had much effect on students.
On Wed., Mar. 12 afternoon, striking workers gathered on the UBC campus to protest the impending legislation, but to no avail. Union members will be required to return to their jobs until March 31.
"Our first concern is for the 23,000 students who could be in jeopardy of losing the school year because of the strike," Labour Minister Graham Bruce said in a press release. "With this legislation in place, the parties can return to the bargaining table and the students can attend classes without crossing a picket line."
Union members were less excited about the results.
"I am disgusted with what have just happened [sic]," wrote one poster on the AMS forums, identified as "justaTA." "I never heard of ANY democratic government to withdraw the rights of a certain group of people to strike! Striking is legal, or at least I thought it was (please correct me if I'm wrong!!)! This is not about CUPE 2278, 2950 or 1234... this is not about supporting what TAs are asking for! This government has taken peoples right to protest legally. What is next? Freedom of speech? Freedom of press? Freedom to come and go?"
"Yes, I am going back to work, because I'm not about to go illegal, but I will exercise my right to protest for 'my right to protest' until this right is taken away from me."