Reprinted from People's Voice Newspaper
At the end of February and beginning the first week of March, approximately 10,000 academic workers went on strike at two of Canada’s largest universities. They are represented by two CUPE Locals, 3902 and 3903, who represent Units of Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants and Contract Faculty at the University of Toronto and York University respectively. Nine thousand are still on strike.
The issues and responses at both universities, York with about 4000 strikers and U of T with about 6000, are so close that they can be detailed in the same general overview. A good place to start is with the words of Erin Black, Union Chair at U of T, “We are poor and precarious and need improvement in our standard of living”. This is by no means an overstatement but what analyses will show is probably an understatement of the precarious existence of Teaching Assistants (TAs), Graduate Assistants (GAs) and Contract Faculty (CFs) at most universities.
The population that stretches from Oshawa to St. Catharines and includes the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton contains the heaviest concentration of precarious workers in Canada. 40% of these, including immigrant workers, have some kind of university or college degree. Educated, precarious and poor. When we think of precarious workers, we might think of fast food or service jobs, but that is incorrect. They are post-graduate TAs, contract white collar workers, self-employed tradespeople, and the highest percentage are in private sector manufacturing. They are 40% of the work force.
Under the general stress of underfunding, universities have moved to a narrow customer-service business model that has transformed academia into a corporate mentality of more user fees for less service, many-tiered remuneration categories, contract work, competition for your own job renewal and an ever increasing work load.
Ontario has the lowest per student funding in Canada, now at 2001 levels. Inflation adjustment means that it has actually declined after rising slightly in 2006. The Ontario government's own studies have advised universities that the only way to deal with the increased enrollment/declining funding crisis is to cut labour costs in collective bargaining. This is a strike of desperation staged by the victims of declining corporate taxes and the offloading of the burden onto the working people.
In an open letter to his colleagues in the English Department at U of T, Prof. Paul Downs states, “This strike is a symptom of all the things many of us are most concerned about: the shrinking public investment in education; the corporatization of the university; the marginalization of the humanities; the rise of one or another form of precarious employment; the widespread hostility towards organized labour; and the ongoing disaster of our inability to promise PhD students in the humanities a decent chance of securing a tenure-track job after they have helped us to teach our undergraduate classes, fill our graduate classes, enhance our reputation and professional status as research professors and sustain a vibrant departmental culture. This strike may not be the strike we wanted, it may be something of a blunt instrument, but it is the strike we have helped to produce and we have offered our students no alternative….”.
The Contract Faculty at both York and U of T have settled at this writing, with some gains in the amount of tenured positions available and in the benefit package. They remain steadfast in their statements of solidarity with the TAs who, in both universities, have turned down the latest offers and continue their strikes. The students at York have circulated and signed a solidarity petition with over 5000 names, and 300 Faculty members have signed a letter to the University Senate demanding a just settlement and criticizing attempts to resume classes. There are parallel solidarity actions at U of T where over 1000 students staged a solidarity walkout, and the Students Union, representing 50,000 students, is solid in its support. The support grows daily with over 70 Faculty Groups, Gender Studies, Academic Departments and labour unions publishing open letters of solidarity.
The Universities are 60% publicly funded, and the largest criteria for these shrinking funds is enrolment. The TA’s, because they are graduate students as well as academic workers, swell the ranks of enrolment and thus become money-makers for the Universities. They generate income not only as enrolled post-graduates, but because they provide the cheap labour for the university to provide expanded curricula and programs. The fact that 9000 are still on strike after the CF settlement shows the scope of this phenomenon. Both York and U of T have made public statements that TAs are treated generously. This is similar to all the teacher-bashing that has become so popular. TAs in some faculties might receive $17,000 plus a tuition waver (total package $25,000), while in other faculties they might receive $15,000 with no tuition waver (total wage $7000). When tuitions rise their disposable income drops.
“Precarious and poor”
The TA and CF negotiated hours of work are fiction, as is the administration propaganda about generous hourly rates. What is the sense of claiming TAs earn $35 an hour when there is a cap of $15,000 and an open-ended workload? Like most teaching professionals, they do what is necessary to maintain and service the needs of their students. To maintain passing levels in their own post-graduate courses and perform required research requires a full time presence at the campus that usually stretches into the evenings.
“Precarious and poor” living in the Toronto area requires family assistance and large debt accumulation. Years ago, although false even at that time, society and academia claimed this was an entrance ritual that led to tenure and job security. That myth has evaporated. Tenure is shrinking to a handful of positions every year, and regular work has been eroded into contract precarity. The carrot is gone and only the stick remains. These strikes are the tip of the iceberg and probably will be repeated elsewhere. The TAs and GAs at York and U of T may be deciding the direction of negotiations for the whole of CUPE on campuses across Ontario.
A tentative offer on March 18 from the University of Toronto was recommended by the CUPE 3902 negotiating committee. Over the March 21-22 weekend, 1101 union members voted to reject the tentative agreement, and 992 voted to ratify. "Our members have clearly indicated that continued strike action is necessary to achieve the gains that are necessary for long-term financial security as student workers," CUPE 3902 spokesman Craig Smith said in a statement.
At PV deadline, there was no breaking news from the York University strike. Our next issue will include further information and analyses of both strikes.