Maggie Macdonald, a fourth-year PhD candidate at the Faculty of Information, has a love-hate relationship with U of T.

During the pandemic, MacDonald was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On top of this, one of her parents died of COVID-19. MacDonald, a Connaught PhDs for Public Impact fellow, attributes a significant amount of her academic success to the health benefits she has access to through being a member of Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 (CUPE3902) Unit 1.

“If I had not had a chance to have my ADHD diagnosis… access to pharmaceutical intervention and a stable medical regime, [and] access to regular talk therapy to help me through the traumatic death of a parent… I truly don’t think that I would be thriving on the level that I am,” explained MacDonald. 

MacDonald currently researches increased platformization of the pornography industry and is a teaching assistant (TA) at the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. This position makes her a member of bargaining Unit 1 in CUPE3902, the union that represents contract academic employees at U of T.

Bargaining Unit 1 membership includes TAs, student and postdoctoral course instructors, exam invigilators, and chief presiding officers. Other units of CUPE3902 cover peer assistants, lab demonstrators, writing instructors, sessional lecturers and postdoctoral research fellows. Unit 7 includes graduate assistants at OISE. 

Last semester, MacDonald’s health-care funding was at risk of being reduced, alongside that of everyone in Unit 1 and Unit 7. On October 17, acting vice-president of CUPE3902 Unit 1 Eriks Bredovskis posted a thread on Twitter, in which he called the reductions “unacceptable,” drawing particular attention to a proposed reduction in mental health care coverage.

In a statement to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that, “The well-being of our students is a top priority for the University of Toronto.” However, U of T is known partially for the strain it places on its students and its environment of poor mental health. Some argued that, via the proposed reductions, the university was putting TAs — who assist professors with instructional responsibilities while grappling with their own academic workloads — at risk of losing access to important health services.

On November 29, the union announced that CUPE3902 Units 1 and 7 came to an agreement with U of T. The agreement secured current health-care benefits for union members until the end of their collective agreement, which is due to expire in December 2023. Interviews with different members of CUPE3902 Unit 1 show that this agreement goes beyond telling a story about TAs suffering from mental health strains. This is a story about student resilience and perseverance, as well as TAs who are passionate about their jobs fighting to be viewed in a dignified light by the institution.

TAs’ mental health strain

To understand the potential implications of these proposed health-care plans, it’s imperative to understand the nature of being a PhD candidate. 

As MacDonald explains: “[If] you’re doing a PhD, you’re not getting through without TAing.” Obtaining a PhD goes beyond learning and research, it also requires a candidate to market oneself to obtain work. Every semester, MacDonald applies for new TA positions. Once she’s hired, she learns the material for each course she’s hired to help teach.

“It’s a marathon of mental health endurance,” MacDonald added. “Even those who are in pretty good positions with their funding… finds [themselves in a] looping, cyclical pattern of intense work that changes almost every semester.” 

For PhD candidates, this cyclical pattern of mental strain may continue for sometimes up to seven or eight years in a row. 

In an interview with The Varsity, Amy Conwell, the president of CUPE3902, remarked that the emotional labour of being a TA exacerbates the academic stress PhD students face. Conwell noted that TAs are not only mentors to students, but are often the authoritative figures that students may feel comfortable reaching out to during difficult times. “[TAs] don’t even have any sort of training module saying, ‘This is how you respond to students in crisis,’ and I think that’s really shameful,” Conwell said.

Last semester, fourth-year PhD candidate Zak Jones was a TA for ENG140 — Literature for Our Time at UTSG and for ENGA03 — Intro to Creative Writing at UTSC. Across both classes, he taught approximately 125 students. Jones said that, while teaching, he was responsible for “expanding [students’] horizons, intellectually, personally and otherwise.” 

To Jones, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a TA is witnessing former students grow in their English careers. Yet, this sense of achievement doesn’t detract from the emotional labour he often has to exert when teaching. Jones is aware that he is often the first academic support for the students that he teaches. 

“I’m struggling to do the best job that I can with a whole lot of other people in tow that I care very much about, be it my peers or my students,” Jones said.

Mental health support at U of T

Mental health supports provided by U of T exist free of charge on campus through the tri-campus wellness centres. A statement to The Varsity from a U of T spokesperson notes that, in the past two years, the university has made changes to how mental health services are delivered. These changes were made to “ensure students can get the help they need when they need it.” 

With regard to on-campus mental health services, the university has implemented a stepped-care model, which is described by U of T’s health and wellness website as including multiple levels of support including education, workshops, one-on-one counselling sessions, and crisis support. The website adds that students can access different types of care at various times, “depending on their needs and their willingness to participate.” 

The U of T spokesperson wrote, “A cornerstone of [U of T’s] new model are same-day and next-day counseling appointments.” Counselling differs from therapy as it is usually a short-term treatment that provides solutions to immediate and specific issues. Therapy is treatment that can be broader and used for a longer term, functioning to help a patient understand and change patterns of behaviour, and often tackles more complex problems. 

However, MacDonald noted the importance of long-term mental health services such as therapy. She also said that she believes that a counselling session phone call would make a negligible impact when students need to solve sustained difficulties like trauma and substance use.

In short, free campus mental health services may not offer all the supports that TAs require. That’s why, to address academic and emotional stress, some TAs access therapy off campus by using their CUPE3902 Unit 1 health benefits. 

A budget breakdown

According to Bredovskis’ tweets, in 2018, Unit 1 workers accessed about $400,000 worth of mental health services. In 2022, this amount increased to $1.2 million. This semester, coverage for mental health, along with dental and vision care, was at risk of being reduced.

The recently proposed health-care reduction, if enacted, would have affected Units 1 and 7, which together consist of over 9,000 student workers. As part of their collective agreement, members of bargaining units 1 and 7 in CUPE3902 receive health benefits from their employer, U of T. Their health-care plan exists as a pool of money, as opposed to individual quotas. In their most recent collective agreement, U of T confirmed their commitment to paying up to $3.2 million per plan year.

In an email to The Varsity, Jones shared information compiled by Bredovskis, which breaks down Unit 1 plan usage. Since 2018, collective mental health spending has increased by 287 per cent. Moreover, graphs show that the amount of money allocated toward mental health spending and claims increased in lockstep, indicating that members are maxing out their claims for mental health.

The increase in mental health spending pushed Unit 1 members over the $3.2 million allocated for health-care benefits. This is called overspending. To combat this, U of T proposed two plans. 

The first was to reduce members’ dental coverage and mental health services by 10 per cent each, vision care by 50 per cent, and Health Care Spending Accounts (HCSA) by 35 percent; this plan was estimated to save the university $413,000. The second plan would reduce dental by 12 per cent, eliminate coverage for vision, and reduce HCSA by 35 per cent, estimating $410,000 in savings for the university. 

In a statement to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that the university “has not proposed cuts to CUPE’s healthcare plan” but “engaged in discussions as required by the CUPE3902 unit 1 Collective Agreement.” The spokesperson added that those discussions “included a review of some options to mitigate the projected overspend in the healthcare plan.”

MacDonald pointed out that this plan to save $400,000 was proposed by an employer which, in the 2022–2023 school year, had an operating budget of 3.23 billion dollars.

Jones also compared the amount of money saved in the university’s proposed plans to U of T President Meric Gertler’s salary, which was $438,892 in 2021. In 2020, U of T’s highest salary was awarded to University of Toronto Asset Management Corp chief investment officer Daren Smith, who made $692,238.96. “They’re going to cut benefits to [9000 members] of their labour force to save two thirds of one [employee’s] salary,” Jones said. “It’s egregious.”

Currently, members of Unit 1 are receiving less dollar value in their coverage compared to four years prior, according to Bredovskis’ investigation. In the 2020–2021 round of bargaining, Unit 1 was able to secure a one per cent increase in this pool of $3.2 million — the largest increase they could bargain for due to Bill 124: Ontario’s Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act. 

Bill 124 limits public sector workers’ compensation and salary increases to a maximum of one per cent per year for all benefits of monetary value. The bill does not take inflation into account. Conwell calls the bill “wage restraint legislation.” 

As of October 2022, Canada’s inflation rate was at 6.9 per cent. Bill 124’s wage cap, along with the fact that Unit 1 membership has increased between 2019–2020 and 2021–2022, means that each Unit 1 member receives less money than in accordance with inflation. 

In 2018–2019, each member was promised $571 from the pool of $3.2 million for healthcare expenses. In 2021–2022, after increasing 3.2 million by one per cent, the pool of money allocated for health-care funding divided equally among members was $527.18 — a decrease of 7.68 per cent per person before taking the 6.9 per cent yearly rate of inflation into account.

Making change

In a statement to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson addressed the changes proposed in November: “The University has proposed to maintain the health-care plan and all health-care benefit levels intact for the term of the Collective Agreement, and CUPE3902 has agreed to this proposal.” 

However, in an interview, Conwell expressed that “the reason that the health care cuts were not implemented, and the university instead found a way to maintain levels is because of the immense pressure put on them.” According to Conwell, the departmental-level organization of stewards, leaders, and student workers in Unit 1 and 7 helped prevent cuts to the union’s health benefits.

CUPE3902 fought to maintain their health benefits in the midst of a greater labour movement across North America. In Ontario, education workers represented by CUPE walked off the job on November 4, after the province imposed a contract on them and made it illegal for them to strike. In California, about 48,000 unionized academic workers across the University of California system went on strike on November 14. Their demands included significant pay increases, enhanced health care for dependents, and longer family leave.

To Jones, the responsibility of taking action stretches further than himself and his current peers. “Just because we’re not here forever… doesn’t mean that we don’t have an obligation to the next group of people that come after us to secure these benefits,” Jones said.

However, Jones greatly appreciates U of T and plans to eventually apply for a job as a tenured professor at the university. MacDonald also expressed gratitude for U of T, specifically with regard to the current health benefits she receives as a TA. She explained that this gratitude is why she’s “so dedicated to protecting” the union’s benefits.

MacDonald also made clear that her issue with U of T was not borne of greed, a misconception that she called “one of the most insidious framings that unions in general face from popular media.” An example of such was how Ontario’s Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, explained Bill 28 — the legislation to ban Ontario education workers from striking — as a way of protecting students’ school years. This framing was evident in the official name of the bill, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which suggested that education workers were sacrificing students’ learning to receive better benefits.

“When the funding bodies, and when the employers who are responsible for balancing these budgets decide that this is not a budget line that’s worthy of their attention — that is where I dig my heels in,” said MacDonald.

Suffering versus perseverance

Jones highlighted the importance of viewing TAs and PhD students not as suffering, but instead as persevering through difficult circumstances. Despite feeling torn between a romanticized image of academia and the realities of being a student worker, Jones is not jaded about his profession. “I have yet to relinquish that romantic relationship to teaching and educating and learning… There’s a great kind of heartfelt and moral, spiritual point to all this,” he said. 

However, Jones’ love for teaching doesn’t detract from the systems he needs to persevere through to be an effective TA. In our interview, MacDonald pointed out the hypocrisy of U of T promoting the achievements of their students while also proposing to cut their health benefits. “They love to show the level of success we can achieve, and that level of success for a great many very intelligent people is only available when they are supported,” MacDonald said.

For some, it’s easy to regard these proposed cuts as an example of the university’s culture of poor mental health support. This idea can be backed up by the tentative agreement that CUPE3902 Unit 3 recently reached with U of T, allowing the union to narrowly avoid a strike. CUPE 3902 Unit 3 includes sessional lecturers, music professionals, writing instructors, and sessional instructional assistants at U of T. Their demands for the current round of collective bargaining included job security, establishing pathways to permanent positions at the university, an increase in wages, and improving access to health care, including mental health supports.

However, to others, these cuts are not indicative of U of T’s culture — they’re an attack on U of T’s culture and academic environment. “I think that it’s a mistake to think of U of T as a top-down culture,” Jones said. Jones added that U of T’s culture is not made from the “highest echelons of executive leadership”; rather, it “actually exists in the relationship between the students and who they perceive to be their real teachers.”

On a provincial government level, change is happening. On November 29, an Ontario court struck down Bill 124, declaring the wage cap law unconstitutional. Although the Ford Government stated that they would appeal the court ruling, this decision meant that CUPE3902 Unit 3 was able to bargain for significant wage increases.

Bargaining for the next CUPE3902 collective agreement is set to begin in November 2023. Conwell said that, until then, the main way undergraduate students can help TAs is to pay attention to messages from their course instructors and TAs leading up to Unit 1 bargaining. 

“Working conditions for student workers are the learning conditions for students,” Conwell insisted. “We’re not going to see the improvements that we need and be recognized and supported in the ways that we all deserve, if we don’t fight.”