York University suspended classes Tuesday after its teaching assistants and contract faculty voted against a new labour agreement, leaving students wondering when they'll get back in the lecture halls.

Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, which represents nearly 3,700 teaching assistants, contract faculty, graduate assistants and research assistants rejected the university's latest deal. Even though more than 71 per cent of the workers voted against the new deal, negotiators said they're close to an agreement with the university.

Striking employees rallied outside the university's main gate as snow began to fall around noon. Several stopped traffic heading onto and off campus to state their case.

One demonstrating CUPE employee led a chant, yelling "education under attack — what do you do?"

"Stand up, fight back!" yelled the crowd. 

Striking employee Ryan Carter said he thinks university workers are in a good position to get what they want, especially given the twin high profile strike at U of T. 

"This is our time," Carter said.

Faiz Ahmed, the chair of CUPE Local 3903, told CBC News that the union is sending its bargaining team back to the table on Tuesday.

"We believe we're not that far apart and we think we can come to an agreement sooner (rather) than later," he said.

The university called the strike "unfortunate" and said it's hoping for a quick resolution. This is the fourth strike at York since 1997, something the university's president admits doesn't cast the institution in a positive light. 

York President Mamdouh Shoukri told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that the university is doing everything it can to give contract faculty more job security, but it's handcuffed due to the amount of money it gets from the government.

Toronto York University protest

CUPE Local 3903 members rallied outside the main gates of York University on Tuesday, the first day of a strike that cancelled classes. (Linda Ward/CBC)

"There are structural issues," Shoukri said, adding other universities across North America are facing the same issues.

He said at York, 73 per cent of the university's total revenue is spent on salaries and compensation, leaving little left to put contract employees on the tenure track.

"I absolutely understand the issue," said Shoukri,

Contract faculty a cheap option for university

Alex Usher, a consultant with Higher Education Strategies Associates, said contract faculty are capable and dedicated teachers with the upside that they cost the university far less than tenured staff.

"Universities are paid based on teaching, but what they really like to do is research," Usher said.

That means institutions push to find surpluses, and one way is by outsourcing large chunks of tenured professors' teaching duties to teaching assistants or contract faculty.

Usher said the contract workers at the heart of the York strike aren't professionals parachuting in to teach one course, but contractors who are trying to line up four courses a semester with the hope that they’ll find a tenured position.

"That’s difficult, there’s no question about that," he said. 

Other York facilities, including the libraries, residences and athletic facilities remain open.

Meanwhile, some 6,000 University of Toronto teaching assistants and other contract workers remain on strike. Yesterday, striking workers picketed outside the U of T's three campuses in the downtown core, Scarborough and Mississauga.