March 2, 2015 By: Alison McEwen
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This past Friday, CUPE Local 3902, representing the Teaching Assistants (TAs) and students and post-doctoral fellows employed as contract instructional staff at the University of Toronto, voted down a Tentative Agreement with the Administration and went on strike. About 1,000 members attended the meeting on Friday to decide whether or not the tentative agreement was good enough. Ninety percent of those in attendance said no.

Picketing is to start today. Tutorials, labs, and even some classes will cease. TAs are often used to invigilate and then mark the exams of the thousands of students at Canada’s largest university. The University was able to avoid even further disruption by reaching an agreement at the eleventh hour last week with the 1,000 contract professors that also belong to CUPE 3902.

Now the University’s well-oiled and well-funded PR machine will likely start making noise about how much TAs make. But they make more than $40 per hour, the University may claim. Look at this entitled generation, they may say. In other words, they will likely attempt to paint the TAs as entitled youth who just want more for less.

Easy story to tell, especially in a country with a still-recovering economy, which has plenty of people without work, and unions that are facing thinly-veiled (or even overt) attacks from our federal government. But before we drink the University’s kool-aid, let’s deconstruct the story a little.

Graduate students usually receive a funding package worth a set amount: the basic amount at U of T is $15,000. Some of that funding (let’s say half for simplicity’s sake) is awarded for the work graduate students do in terms of their research. For the other half, the University reserves the right to ask the graduate students to perform TA duties. Fine, that makes sense, and it is often a good way to introduce graduate students to working with students.

But if the second part of a student’s funding is set at $7,500, then the hourly wage is not really the point. The University will try to say that it does matter, because a higher “hourly wage” means that the student is doing less hours of work to make the money, and that if the student does work over and above the hours required to get the $7,500, they will be paid out at that higher hourly wage.

That is all well and good in theory. But there are two major problems with that in practice:

First, the amount of work TAs need to get done will not change. Whatever the University agrees to pay them per hour, this really means that TAs will be expected to get more done in less time, and in practice it just means more of the TA time will go unpaid. TAs already perform a significant amount of unpaid labour. It is the nature of any workforce that involves complicated power dynamics: is a TA really going to turn to the administration and say “actually, the allotted hours are up, you are going to have to pay me over and above my funding package?” Of course not – or at least very rarely. And that is on top of the work that TAs already do, but don’t log as paid hours (think: answering student questions after class in non-formal, non-office hours setting)

Second, while it is nice for the University to trumpet that any hours over and above the required TA hours in the Collective Agreement are paid out at the “high hourly wage”, the reality is that the University of Toronto TAs already have some of the highest hour expectations of all TAs in Canada, and there is a shortage of TA work. It is nearly impossible for them to get the elusive “extra” hours where they actually get paid more than the money guaranteed under their funding package. Like so many employer practices, it sounds great in theory but does little for employees in practice.

All of this is on top of the fact that the base amount of $15,000 has not gone up since 2008. Think about that: rent, transport, gas, childcare, and other costs have all skyrocketed in Toronto. This means that grad students in Toronto are living approximately $8,000 below the poverty line. Yes, you read that right. We are asking our best and our brightest, of whom we expect innovations in research and theory, and to whom we will eventually entrust the post-secondary education and research and development in this country, to live and work while we pay them so little that they cannot survive, must hold down any number of jobs, or incur crippling debt. This is not like doing a PhD twenty years ago: tuition is proportionally higher, as are living costs in a major centre, and job security upon graduation is tenuous at best. All of this from a University that touts itself as a leading institution in Canada (or, if nothing else, charges a premium to attend, while telling the world they are a leading institution).

Further, the above would be true if the University had put their best foot forward and really tried to make it work with the TAs. Instead, the collective agreement expired at the end of April 2014, and the University scheduled four bargaining dates: one in January and three at the end of February 2015, after months of sporadic meetings in which the University offered the union no resolution on any issue the Union identified as a priority. The last three of the four bargaining dates came in the last three days before CUPE 3902 was to go on strike after working without a contract for nearly ten months.

Interestingly, the University was able to reach a last-minute deal with the non-student contract instructors. One might hypothesize that was because these contract professors do a lot of teaching to the University’s “basic income units”. What is a “basic income unit” you ask? Well that is what the University calls its undergrads. No, I did not make that up, and no, I am not joking. So, congratulations University of Toronto, you have managed to become the Wal-Mart of the post-secondary world in terms of employment. The bottom line is the only thing that matters. But what can you expect from a University that calls its undergrad population “basic income units”?

I am not naive, nor am I an idealistic twenty-year old (anymore). I understand that post-secondary institutions are businesses too, and that they, like many, have bottom lines. But universities are more than businesses; they are also supposed to be places of higher learning, of knowledge and innovation. They are supposed to be places where we foster space for the best and the brightest to pursue these goals. It is short-sighted for U of T to treat its least powerful employees like this. If grad students are unable to live, and their minds are occupied with how to pay rent and feed themselves, they cannot focus on their work and on being the best and the brightest – or on putting out the high quality graduate work-product U of T brags about.

Someone once told me that, to really get the measure of someone, you look not at how they treat those above them, but how they treat those over whom they have power. Well U of T, I have looked, and I am extremely disappointed. Shame on you U of T.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2017 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

Service: Labour Law