HAMILTON, ONTARIO--Frustrated that their salaries don't provide enough money to even pay all of their tuition, University of Toronto (UT) teaching assistants (TAs) walked off the job on January 7. Negotiations between the UT administration and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents the striking TAs, immediately broke down and the university locked the TAs out.

Currently, TAs at UT must supplement their teaching income with grants or departmental funds just to pay their tuition, to say nothing of room and board. The average yearly TA salary is $4100, but the average UT member pays $5120 in yearly tuition, making a net yearly loss of over $1000. And the situation is deteriorating rapidly, says Hayssam Hulays, chair of the UT Teaching Assistant Union. Tuition has increased 200% over the last 2 years and 500% over the last 4 years. The students also want an increase in the $150 allowance provided in their current dental plan. "We are one of only a few unions that do not have a real dental plan," complains Hulays, "$150? That's just enough for a cleaning."

Although the UT administration had advance warning of the impending strike, they were reluctant to negotiate with the union until the last minute. "Two to three days before the strike deadline, [the administration] started bargaining," Hulays tells Next Wave, "By then, it was too little too late." The Ministry of Labor has called an exploratory meeting for Monday between TAs and the administration in an effort to get the two sides talking again.

If an agreement isn't reached soon, the TAs could find themselves out of work for the remainder of the semester. The administration is planning to restructure all of its courses so that TAs are not needed if an agreement is not reached by February 4, says Hulays. Some of the restructuring includes multiple choice exams in English classes, as well as science and engineering courses without laboratory components.

But the union remains hopeful an agreement can be reached before that happens. The recent student victory at McMaster is certainly buoying their spirits. Mike Skinner, business agent and chief negotiator for the McMaster TA union, says, "The biggest benefit is the political education that the members got. The education is going to make people think twice about their right to speak up as employees of the university, not just as academics or students."