There are many misconceptions floating around campus regarding the potential TA strike. Some are obviously wrong, like the notion that a one day strike means we’ll lose the semester. Many are more complex though. As we near the February 26 strike deadline, more and more myths will make their way around campus. One thing is clear: while not inevitable, at this point a strike is incredibly likely. So, here are five of the more complex issues to consider as CUPE 3902 and U of T’s administration struggle to reach an amicable compromise.
1. Teaching assistants are overpaid.
The university pays most graduate students $15, 000 a year. According to Statistics Canada, the poverty line for a single adult in Toronto was $19,307 in 2011. Some graduate students make a bit more — the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology offers $16,500 — but most are well below the poverty line. Many students have been talking about TAs $42.05 hourly rate. This number is misleading for two reasons. First, the university caps TAs hours at 205 per year. Most TAs work more than 205 hours though, so the real hourly rate is much lower than $42.05. Second, graduate students are supposed to work on original research full time. So, even based on the modest estimate of 40 hours a week for 24 weeks a year, they’re only making $6.65 for the other hours they’re working. It’s also worth emphasizing that $15, 000 is significantly less money than many of the American schools that U of T competes with to attract top talent. It’s also less than a number of Canadian schools, despite Toronto’s much higher cost of living.
2. This is just about teaching assistants.
There are two sections of CUPE 3902 that are bargaining currently. TAs are part of Unit 1, which also represents course instructors who are still students. Unit 3, which represents sessional faculty, including writing instructors and music tutors, is also seeking a new contract. Sessional faculty teach approximately 35 per cent of undergraduates, and yet their salaries comprise about 1 per cent of U of T’s budget. Most sessional lecturers get paid $7,125 per half-year course. Those who have worked six or more years get paid $7,260. That’s a $135 raise, or $22.50 for every year of experience. While there are some opportunities for those who have worked for several years and received outstanding performance reviews to get paid more, under the current agreement, the maximum someone can earn for a half course is $7,925. The interesting thing is that most of Unit 3’s demands have little to do with money. While they want a 3.5 per cent raise, what they really want is increased job security. Under the current system, sessional lecturers have to re-apply to teach every semester. Offering a modicum of job security wouldn’t cost the university a penny and it would improve the classroom experience. After all, people who spend less time worrying about whether they’ll have a job next month have more time to spend on teaching.
3. The provincial government said the university cannot pay TAs more.
The university’s public bargaining position is that they can’t offer any increases in the net value of the collective agreements. U of T has repeatedly claimed they must do this because the provincial government has instituted a freeze for public sector salaries. The freeze does not apply to universities though because they’re only partially funded by the province. U of T actually makes most of its money from a combination of tuition and private donations. It’s worth pointing out that Western University agreed to annual raises for their faculty association in November. Western will provide a 1.25 per cent raise in the first year followed by annual increases of one per cent over three years. It’s also worth noting that Dr. Erin Black, the chair of CUPE 3902, said that the university had finally offered a one per cent increase per year over the next three years.
4. The university could spend this year’s net income of $194.4 million to avoid a strike.
U of T surprised many last week when they announced a $194.4 million surplus. Many students were quick to point out that some of that money could go to CUPE 3902. While U of T could radically change their budget and divert some of the $194.4 million to increasing wages — they’re not going to. That money is essentially a rainy day fund. Historically, the university runs deficits some years and surpluses others, and it uses the good years to pay for the bad. Also worth emphasizing that the university has $1,031.4 million in outstanding debt. That being said, the university does have some money to play with. The magic number is 2.8 per cent. That’s how much U of T stated it wanted to reduce overall compensation increases in the most recent budget. Currently, average compensation is increasing by five per cent. A big part of the problem is that a lot of that increase is going to members of the University of Toronto Faculty Association so the actual amount for TAs and sessional lecturers is lower than 2.8 per cent. While 3.5 per cent for sessional lecturers might be doable, teaching assistants are far less likely to get what they want, if only because they’re asking for an increase closer to 20 per cent — an amount that would get them closer to the poverty line. The bottom line though is that everything is in flux until a strike happens. In 2008, the TAs went on strike and they got a 16.7 per cent increase (from $12,500 to $15,000). If public opinion swings against the unions though, they might settle for something way closer to what the university wants. Which brings me to the last point.
5. U of T and TAs don’t want to involve undergraduates.
The point of a strike — or a lockout — is to disrupt the normal functioning of the university to force the other side to the table. The only way to do this is to make life difficult for most people at U of T. Practically, that means undergraduate students. If CUPE 3902 goes on strike, undergraduates will be hurt the most. We’re the ones who will have to worry about cancelled tutorials and classes, not to mention the potential for an extended school year. So the most important thing right now is for the two sides to sit down and talk. Unfortunately, Unit 3 has one negotiating day left (Monday, February 9) and Unit 1 has four negotiating days left. Right now the two sides are in a classic prisoner’s dilemma and the only way out of it is to talk. CUPE 3902 has asked for more bargaining days but so far U of T has ignored that request. U of T offered CUPE 3902 no increases in salary for a year — not to the cost of living, not to the poverty line — and now they’ve offered so few bargaining dates that it’s hard to see how they could possibly be negotiating in good faith. Which is, to put it mildly, pretty offensive. Not only to teaching assistants and sessional lecturers but also to undergraduate students. The university is hoping that we’ll be gullible enough to believe they’re blameless if negotiations collapse. While much of this issue is complex, unless the university is willing to get back to that table, the question of whose fault will be if a strike happens is crystal clear.
Zane Schwartz is a fourth-year history student who contributes to The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. He was The Varsity’s news editor last year. His column appears bi-weekly.