The first reaction from undergraduate students when they hear about a possible TA strike is anger or frustration. I’ll admit it was my first reaction, too. It makes sense, as it seems the education we are diligently pursuing is in danger; we saw what happened to the students of York University when their TAs went on “strike” a few years ago. However, this reaction stems from ignorance about what’s at stake.
When people hear the word “strike” the first thought that generally pops into their heads is that there must be a dispute over wages — and this usually leads non-supporters to believe that the union is greedy. But what we need to understand is that in the case of CUPE 3902, while a wage increase is one of the issues in dispute, a wage gain is not. The difference is that while the union is asking for an increase in pay, it is in keeping with the rate of inflation. Salaries need to keep pace with inflation as the cost of living increases and salaries are worth less overall. So while CUPE 3902 wants a higher hourly rate for its members, they wouldn’t be making more than they were at the earlier inflation rate.
Another issue up for debate is funding. Many of U of T’s graduate students in the arts and sciences are funded. This means they have their tuition waived for four to five years, and they receive both funding for dissertation research and pay for TA work. The administration is trying to decrease the amount of funding that the grad students receive for conducting their dissertation research and eliminate funding for grad students who take more than four years to complete their dissertations.
What we need to realize is that our TAs are not trying to get rich; PhDs are not a cost-effective investment. If funding for PhDs were to disappear on a national or international level, fewer people would pursue them; this would greatly hinder research and advancement. Objecting to funding for graduate students without considering the long-term consequences is simplistic.
If you’re an undergrad, there are a few reasons you should care about the issues CUPE 3902 brings up.
The interests of the grad students and the undergrads are linked more tightly than most of us realize; the value of our undergraduate degrees hinges partly on the strength of the PhDs that U of T produces. Schools gain prestige from strong PhDs. Our U of T degree won’t retain its value if the school can’t attract strong grad students. So even if we don’t empathize with the members of CUPE 3902, we should support them as a matter of self-interest.
Another issue between the administration and CUPE 3902 that affects the undergrads is tutorial sizes. Tutorial sizes at U of T have been on the rise for several years and have finally reached levels that render them completely useless. Right now, 42 per cent of tutorials have more than 50 students and more than a hundred have a class size greater than 100 students. CUPE 3902 wants to cap tutorial sizes at 50 students. Tutorials are in place to help students gain more from lecture material and readings through discussion. Enormous tutorials mean less attention from the TAs and less time for students to voice their opinions or concerns. Large tutorials not only lead to distressed TAs but are also less effective for us. We need to support the strike, because when TAs suffer, so do we.