The role of TAs and the motivations for the union’s strike vote

Op-ed: A letter to undergraduate students at the University of Toronto

Last week, The Varsity published an article about our union’s strike vote, featuring interviews with the two of us. While the author fairly presented the basic contours of the situation, we feel that the article repeated some fundamental misunderstandings about TA salaries, our role at the university, and the motivations for our union’s strike vote.

The article claimed the vote revealed “tensions” between students, instructors, and TAs. Any perceived tensions are part of a difficult structural situation and not a divergence of interests between you and your TAs. We are natural allies. We want to fight to make sure that all of us study and work in an affordable, high-quality, and fair environment. Fortunately, our strike vote offers a glimpse at the system upon which the university relies to provide your (increasingly expensive) undergraduate education.

The majority of the TAs you interact with are graduate students. We play two roles. Our primary role, the reason we’re at U of T, is as students and early-stage academics. Our secondary role, the one you are exposed to, is as teachers. Most of us are passionate about teaching and pursuing it as a career. Nonetheless, we often undertake our role as TAs an obligatory part of our funding.

Grad student employees at U of T were the first in Canada to unionize, back in 1973. The purpose of our union, CUPE 3902, is to present a collective voice to advocate for our rights. Our relationship with the university is defined by our Collective Agreement. It lays out our pay, benefits, training, the leaves we can take if we get sick or have kids, as well as rules on hiring, and other things that affect our lives as employees and as a result change the dynamics of your education. Re-negotiating every few years is our only opportunity to make essential gains and to fix workplace problems.

We’ve negotiated 18 times since 1973; and while we’ve taken many votes, we’ve only been on strike three times. The last time, in 2000, resulted in guaranteed funding for grad students. Since then, the amount of guaranteed funding has been negotiated to reflect costs of living. However, the minimum amount of graduate funding has been frozen since 2008. It’s not enough as life gets more expensive and U of T keeps raising our tuition the same way it raises yours.
On the first day of negotiations the university claimed that, due to dubious “directives” from the provincial government, they would not add a single penny to the value of our Collective Agreement. By every measure, they are asking us to take serious hits to our standard of living. We can’t walk away from our negotiations this year without fixing these problems. We took a strike vote hoping to break the deadlock. It’s a way to demand progress in negotiations by stating that we’re prepared to take action.

As The Varsity’s article made clear, many people often emphasize the fact that we’re paid $42.05 per hour. Taken out of context this seems like a lot of money — and, in light of a potential strike, paints us as privileged, greedy, and willing to jeopardize your situation for an even better deal. What is left out of the discussion is the fact we have about 205 hours of work per year. After the university skims $8,500 for tuition, our take-home pay (when added to our stipends) is roughly $15,000: $10,000 under the official poverty line.

Once we finish course work, usually by the third year of study, we continue to pay full tuition. This means we pay roughly $8,500 (close to $20,000 for international students) for a library card and occasional meetings with our thesis committees. It costs the university almost nothing to have us at this stage.

If our decisions were driven by concern for financial gain most of us would not be pursuing PhD work. In fact, we incur significant opportunity costs for the (increasingly diminished) chance to pursue meaningful careers as scholars and educators. It is against our interests as students to go through with a strike since the primary concern is to get on with our careers. Thankfully, our union gives us a means for collective action and a way to overcome our parochial self-interests. We recognize that we would not have any of the rights we currently enjoy were it not for the solidarity of our predecessors.

The unprecedented strike vote is a signal of continued solidarity. More immediately, it signals frustration with our employer — the same institution we rely on as students and to which we pay tuition. Imagine yourself in a similar dual role. We think you might begin to feel some of our frustration.

We’ve also consistently fought for the quality of your education. We do this because we’re students first, and at the same time we’re also frontline educators. We understand what overcrowded tutorials or labs mean for quality of education, and understand how alienating large lectures can be.

When we last negotiated, we had many undergraduate supporters who wore “I Hate My Tuition, but I Love My TA” buttons around campus. We hope this will be the case again so that we can continue fighting for our mutual benefit as students. A strike vote is a way for us to show that we are not powerless at this university. Neither are you. In the coming months, it will be critical that we stick together to make this university a better, fairer place.

Ryan Culpepper is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Comparative Literature and the vice chair of Unit 1 of CUPE 3902. Craig D. Smith is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science. This letter represents the opinion of the authors and is not the official position of CUPE 3902 or its members.

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