Monday, September 23, 2019
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Striking back at York

York’s 50,000 students have spent the past twelve weeks in purgatory. Their careers have been hijacked by a strike. For…

York’s 50,000 students have spent the past twelve weeks in purgatory. Their careers have been hijacked by a strike. For those planning to graduate anytime soon, the strike has been a nightmare. 

It’s all because Ontario’s best paid teaching assistants are demanding more than the $63 per hour they currently make. And York’s well-compensated contract faculty, who are not guaranteed full-time work by definition, want guarantees of full time work.

The union leadership of CUPE 3903 refuses to accept a 10.7% increase in pay and benefits, along with a guarantee of 22 new full-times hires. York has forced a vote which will take place on Monday.

Students are on the verge of losing thousands of dollars in tuition. Even if the strike ends next week, their window of opportunity to make money this summer is gone. The reputation of York, which has already been dogged by three crippling strikes in the past decade, is toast. York students have a right to be angry.

But their anger hasn’t seemed to translate into any sort of meaningful inquiry as to whether or not the strikers have a point. Few of the students posting on Facebook seem understand the frustrations of non-tenured contract staff. Most Canadian students don’t have any idea how much their instructors make even though we’re the ones paying their salaries.

CUPE says that most of its members are hovering around the poverty line. This is true.

York says that its graduate teaching assistants, who make up the vast majority of CUPE 3903 membership,make $63.29 per hour. This is also true. 

And before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s worth noting that full-time professors (those with tenure) made an average $99,445 per year in 2007 in Ontario.   

But not everyone we call professors is actually a professor of course; many are grad students and some are contract faculty (also known as ‘sessionals’). These are the men and women who have shut down York University.

Graduate teaching assistants earn about $63 per hour as part of the $19k to $22k package they receive to study at York. The package is in exchange for a 10-hour per week teaching or marking gig which lasts eight-months of the year. By comparison, University of Guelph TAs get $38 per hourThe high-pay for low hours is designed to sustain students while still allowing plenty of time to research and study.

It’s hard to live on $19,000 a year after you pay $4000 in tuition, that’s for sure. Yet the undergrads who fund graduate students by paying tuition are certainly able to live on that much dough. And isn’t temporary penury a fair sacrifice to make for the privlege of completing a graduate degree?

Contract faculty have different reasons to be angry. But they certainly can’t claim it’s about money. A single semester salaried contract pays minimum $13,838 per course at York. If that translates to 15 hours of work per course, per week, their wage is $66 per hour. If that course only requires 10 hours of work per week, their wage is $99 per hour. Even if they only teach two courses per week, that’s $83,028 per year. Not too shabby.

But maybe we should feel sorry for contract faculty. The university does treat them as expendable. At the end of each semester, they may or may not be offered courses to teach during the next term. Universities like to save money by not offering new contracts during periods where they don’t need the teachers.

Then again, contract faculty haven’t been given the security of a tenure-track position because they haven’t proven that they deserve tenure yet. They might make good instructors, but being a professor is about teaching and research. Those who can do both are the ones who get the private office, the better pay, the time to do research and the job security. They’re the ones who deserve it the most.

But, to all those contract workers who want full-time job security, I really do feel your pain. There’s an increasing trend toward short contracts instead of full-time jobs in my field as well. If I get fed up with freelance journalism, I’ll probably just, oh I don’t know – find a different job. (If I really love journalism, it shouldn’t be about money anyway.)

Something tells me you will have no choice but to start looking for new jobs too. With funding directly tied to the number of students enrolled, there will certainly be fewer contract workers needed at York next year. Who in their right mind would enrol at York after three strikes in ten years?

And to all those teaching assistants who are tired of being a starving student, I feel your pain too. Last time I checked, I’m a master’s student myself.