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York University administrators are proposing a new funding model that stands to eliminate 670 union jobs for graduate students.

Among the jobs on the chopping block are graduate assistantships, which include a variety of applied work settings, according to a CUPE 3903 press release.

The union has been in communication with York administration over the past few months regarding this issue, specifically York’s Executive Director of Faculty Relations, Barry Miller and Rhonda Lenton, vice president academic and provost.

CUPE 3903 has one of the most comprehensive health care packages in the university sector. If graduate assistant (GA) positions are eliminated, union members are concerned that they will not only lose opportunities for professional experience in their respective fields, but also benefits such as dental, health, child-care subsidies and professional development funds.

CUPE 3903 Chairperson Jen Cypher says it remains unclear what sort of health coverage will be made available to those students denied a GA position.

“York tells us this information is ‘forthcoming,'” says Cypher, adding that she doubts the university will match the benefits package CUPE members have and over the years have stood on multiple picket lines to preserve.

York University released a statement to rabble.ca regarding the ongoing negotiations.

“The university has developed a new funding model for graduate students aimed at enhancing the student learning experience,” according to Janice Walls, York’s deputy spokesperson.

“In order to support students in the pursuit of their academic studies,” says Walls, “they will be offered a fellowship as a core component of their funding without requiring them to work for that funding.” 

Work opportunities that contribute to the student learning experience and/or professional development will still be available to enhance funding packages for students.

“As we share the new funding model with our students in the coming weeks, we will be happy to provide you with more information,” adds Walls.

One union member, Alexandra Fox, says, although York administrators states that fellowships will be offered in lieu of pay from unionized graduate assistantships, she worries the $800 per month she spends on medication and therapy, for instance, will no longer be covered.

“There are hundreds of students just like Alexandra at York,” says CUPE 3903 Grievance Officer, Sonja Killoran-McKibbin. “That’s why we’ve fought for health benefits, child-care services and emergency support funds for our members. At a time when there is growing attention to the mental health crisis on university campuses, York’s move to cut essential health coverage for graduate students is unconscionable.”

Chairperson Cypher adds she worries that students with disabilities may be left out in the cold.

“Our members have access to disability accommodation through the collective agreement,” she notes, and further asks, “how will York ensure these rights now?”

Speculation ensues as to whether this is a strategic move to divide Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants for the next possible strike in the coming years.

York could not comment further. 

Ryan is a freelance journalist, seeking to give the voiceless a voice, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He lives in Toronto. 

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