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UTGSU Election

CUPE3902 proudly supports the UTGSU elections through the ongoing strike, and we encourage all members to vote.

Many members of the union are also members of the UTGSU, and it is important we do not avoid or suspend by inaction this democratic process.

All striking members of CUPE3902 are asked to vote when they can. Voting will be held on the 10th, 11th, and 12th at 10 locations around St. George, including the GSU Offices, and 4 on satellite campuses. Please visit UTGSU.ca/Elections for more information.

In Solidarity

On Politics and media interactions

Dear Friends,

Further to yesterday’s post regarding the obligations of politicians to spend political capital on our behalf, I post the following video with much satisfaction:

A lot of folks have been tweeting the url and that is a good thing. Here’s hoping that the provincial NDP’s continue to exert pressure on the Liberal government and that such pressure eventually amounts to some movement in our favor in the negotiating process.

There has been some concern about the rigor and clarity of our position with regard to public perception. To some degree I share these concerns, but my experience has been that when the media actually asks folks on our side of this dispute what is going on, there seems to be a lot of great things coming out from our side.

For example, in response to the following article,

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/university-of-toronto-teaching-assistants-set-to-take-up-picket-lines/article23241319/

…a colleague of mine engaged in a back-and-forth with a Toronto banker, who was skeptical about the coherence of our bargaining position. The following is a brief record of their correspondence:

Good Afternoon

I found your recent statement in (“We are not saying wages are not high enough, but that our overall funding is insufficient”) to be intriguing because, as I understand it, the UoT graduate student funding package is meant to support research stream masters and PhD students.  This package (comprised of a combination of U of T fellowships, scholarships or awards, and teaching and research assistantships) is not meant to be a living as some students and CUPE would prefer or claim.

As a taxpayer, who went to four of five years of graduate school with a wife who did not work and a child to support and no “funding package” other than very limited support from a not well to do family, working and repayable loans, I resent the level of entitlement or “entitled dependence” exhibited in the current discussion at York and UoT.  Did you and your colleagues not know what the “deal” was when you enrolled and who did you expect was going to pay for the experience?

We are seeing a growing phenomenon in which the young adult wants to study something that is exactly appropriate for him/her, and then starts to dawdle, or chooses something esoteric that has no earning potential. The result is a 28-year-old who is living at home or off of the taxpayer who does not know how to do very much for his or her self.  This is a very contemporary phenomenon, one we have never seen before. The idea that everyone has to find exactly what is suitable for him/her is new and the reality is a group of people incapable of functioning in society in good part because they cannot earn a living.

My view is that the funding package does provide adequate support.  The UoT package is rich compared with other research schools in this country and there is no logical reason to expand it.  What is reasonable is that the student take on the responsibility to do their part by working at least 15 hours a week and/or assuming debt.  The result would likely be faster completion times for the graduate degrees which would then open more places for those in line.

I did appreciate your honesty by acknowledging “We are not saying wages are not high enough” and I can see from your website you are very committed to your work.

[SIGNATURE REDACTED]

Dear [NAME REDACTED] (if I may),

Thanks for your thoughtful email. Before I respond, let me just note that I’m not an official union representative  — the reporter just approached me on the picket line — so please don’t take anything I say below to constitute an ‘official’ union position.

You make what I take to be three separate (though related) points:

  1. The funding package isn’t meant to be a ‘living’, but instead ‘support’, where the latter isn’t governed by the same norms as the former (i.e. it needn’t cover the *total* cost of living for a year as a student in Toronto).
  2. The funding package, set at a minimum of 15k p.a., is adequate. You offer two reasons in support: first, UofT’s package exceeds that of comparable Canadian institutions; second, students could (and should) supplement their income through a combination of part-time non-TA work and loans.
  3. The union demands spring from a kind of unwarranted entitlement to study what we want, without regard for long-term employment consequences or the acquisition of potentially useful skills.

I’ll discuss these points in order.

First, the distinction between ‘support’ and a ‘living’ misconstrues the purpose of the funding package. Research students are full-time researchers, part-time TAs. The ‘deal’ that you refer to in your second paragraph is that the funding package frees graduate students to pursue research full-time. Furthermore, the relationship between the university and its graduate students isn’t primarily that of business-to-client. Graduate students contribute to the prestige and success of the university through our teaching and our research. The strong graduate students act to attract faculty and funding to individual departments and the university as a whole (in my case, which is hardly unusual, the university has made upwards of 50k from my research success). So what you are asking us to do, in taking what amounts to a cut in our funding package (due to inflation and cost of living increases since 2008, and moving forward) is to subsidize the university. And I see no argument for why the burden should rest with graduate students to take the hit on behalf of the university.

Second, given that the funding package is meant to enable graduate students to pursue full-time research, at least one of your suggestions for supplemented our overall income won’t be feasible: we already have a part-time job (TAing), so to ask for another would be to require graduate students to take on what amounts to a full-time job in addition to an already full-time research load. This seems both unfair, given the role graduate students play in the university, and counterproductive. The more we are asked to work, the more our other tasks will suffer: graduation will be delayed, and teaching will suffer. These are outcomes significantly more costly in the long-term than a relatively small increase in the minimum annual compensation for graduate students.

If you accept that graduate students provide more to the university than mere TA work, then the ‘take out a loan’ option also falls short, since again you’re asking the graduate students to incur costs in order to subsidize the institution. On a more pragmatic level, if the university requires students to take out loans, top graduate students will not attend. Most of those I know had other offers, and most of those offers far exceeded what U of T offers. Comparing the university to others in Canada is a mistake: we aren’t competing with other Canadian universities, but with top schools in the U.S.

In any case, fifteen thousand dollars has become an increasingly small amount of money with which to support oneself in Toronto. Adjusted for inflation, the buying power of graduate students in the city has decreased by 10% since 2008. And once you factor in the cost of living increases special to Toronto, that figure only [increases]. So at the very least, the deal offered by the university entrenched a long-term decrease in support to graduate students.  I’d be interested to know how you see someone supporting themselves in Toronto on 15k a year, given that rent now often exceeds $1000 per month.

Lastly, you make the point that the demand for an increase to the funding package springs from an unwarranted sense of entitlement. I hear this point a lot, and I must admit it irks me. The focus on ‘taxpayers’, for one, misrepresents the structure of the social contract. We all pay taxes. The purpose of taxation is to solve a collective action problem: we all require services and goods that we cannot feasibly afford on our own, or at least not at the appropriate stage in life. Yes, your taxes help pay for the university (though to a lesser extent than they used to), just as someone else’s taxes helped pay for your university education (unless you went to a private university). Your tax dollars aren’t being grabbed by entitled graduate students, they are going towards a system — the university system — that needs graduate students in order to function. If you would rather graduate students weren’t funded, you might lose that which you seek to fund. At the very least, the university would become more expensive to run, since much of the ‘cheap’ labour that props it up would be gone. Paying graduate students keeps your taxes lower, in the long run, since we are the body of cheap labour (both at present, and later as sessional instructors) that enables the government to slash funding to post-secondary education.

Anyway, I hope these replies have managed to address your concerns, and apologies for their somewhat rambling character.

Best,

Dominic Alford-Duguid
PhD Candidate, Philosophy


 

I think you’ll agree, the the clarity and precision of this response is applause-worthy. I think that this level of engagement has been fairly typical of most of the news pieces I have seen that actually represent our side of the dispute. Of course, it is true that the University has seen fit to engage in a media strategy of misinformation. However, we cannot control their actions in this regard. All we can do is respond with the same kind of tact, class, and logic demonstrated by my colleague in the aforementioned exchange, as well as many others from folks inside the union.

Good luck everyone. Stay healthy and happy.

In solidarity,

SMS

TA compensation, the argument for a competitive institution

By Zane Schwartz, The Varsity

We can’t be a world-class university without paying top dollar for world-class talent

Citations matter. They force you to prove that you’re not just making things up. I know this because U of T threatens to expel me if I don’t cite properly every time I start a new class.

So it’s a bit hypocritical for our university to not provide any sources for all the numbers they’re spouting regarding the TA strike.

For example, provost Cheryl Regehr maintains that graduate student funding has increased to an average of $35,000 per year. This is — to use U of T’s own language on academic honesty — a misrepresentation of facts.

Link to original article

Politics, Protest Songs, and Batman

Greetings Friends,

Note: In spite of the blog now being integrated into the main content spread of this website, my intention is to continue to post first-personal reflections on my experience of the strike. So, in this way, the blog will continue to be a digital record of my reflections on the strike more than it will function as a database of newsworthy factoids (though, these two things are not mutually exclusive and much of the subsequent content will certainly be info-related). Also, if anyone has any suggestions for topics of discussion, please get in touch. If you click my name at the bottom of each post, it will take you to a page that has my email on it.

I am going to address each topics in the title in reverse order.

i. On Batman

This week was interesting. I got to play superheroes with my kid on Saturday morning after swimming lessons. I was Batman. I wanted to be superman because most of our hero masks make my face sweat, but I was informed in no uncertain terms, that I was to be Batman on this particular occasion. There’s something about running around in a cape and mask with a spazzed-out five year-old that really puts things in perspective. Activities like this can remind you where real value lies in life.

I know a lot of folks are feeling the fatigue after the first week. I spoke to one person who told me that they had pulled 16-hour days the whole week and that they were still operating on only a few hours sleep a night. An addled mind makes for little rest, even when the body is utterly taxed. People are feeling the weight of all this in different ways. I think it’s super important to find ways to exorcise the frustration and angst, to channel and sublimate what can be helpfully transformed and then expunge the remainder in non-toxic ways. Everyone has their preferred methods. Here are a couple of suggestions by way of things not to do:

i. binge drink
ii. shout profanities at strangers
iii. spontaneously combust

Easier said than done, obviously.

I have two positive suggestions to offer as well:

  1. I suggest that all of those folks out there who might be feeling down try playing superheroes. Find a cape (use a bed sheet, if a cape is not readily available), and go to town. You can come to my place and play with my kid if you want. We can make a bat-cave out of couch pillows. Seriously, go be Batman. Right now.

  2. Let’s go dancing. I blew my voice out pretty hard this week but my need to commune with my fellows persists and is indeed, stronger than ever. The only solution I can think of is to dance. I need to dance. Folks, let’s go dancing. There was going to be dancing at the party at the Rhino this past Saturday, but there pretty much wasn’t. That’s OK, it was somewhat of a last minute thing. No judgement. Nevertheless, I think we need to have a proper dance party somewhere with a DJ who knows that there is never a bad time to play Whitney Houston.

ii. Protest Songs

Speaking of music, I have heard tell that there has been some discussion of appropriate ways to enjoy or not enjoy some protest songs. For the record, I think there are some great protest songs. Here is one of my favorites:

The tough thing about some of these songs is that they represent struggles that many of us know nothing about. I have worried from time to time about groceries week to week, but my partner and I have always managed to keep our family fed, we just have a credit card balance to show for it. There is poverty and prejudice out there that no cis-gender white male in his early 30’s, attending the top university in the country, can understand. Much of the angst and beauty that comes out of songs like the one I just posted come from places like that.

For me the important point is that the power of the music speaks for itself. It comes from a complex situation that is foreign to me, yes, but it helps me sublimate my own suffering in a way that keeps me going. As long as we are not ignorant about the relevant asymmetries that separate us from those that inspire us, from across different sorts of divides (cultural, economic, temporal), then I think we can enjoy the art and take solace and motivation from it in ways that resonate with our own difficulties.

Here’s another all-time favorite of mine:

Again, the actual context that motivates the song is far more intense than the one faced by strking TA’s. Yet, there is a strong generality to the lyrics that I think allows them to apply meaningfully in multiple contexts, including ours. Thus, as I mentioned above, I think that as long as one remains sensitive to relevant contextual factors, that music from different times, locations, struggles, and political climates can meaningfully inspire us without being tactless, insensitive, or ignorant.

iii. Politics

Speaking of political climate, I want to close this point on a critical note. This past week there were a number of politicians, especially from the provincial NDP party, on the lines. A few gave short statements at the King’s College rallies and walked the lines for a little while. Some have issued letters of support that can be seen in the ‘Endorsements and Letters of Support’ section of this website. I am sure I am not alone is thanking them deeply for their support.

However, I must say, that if the support of elected members of the provincial legislature, or any other government (municipal, provincial) for that matter, want to show solidarity with our strike, then there is only one way to meaningfully do that. It is by wielding their political clout and lobbying the administration who continue to refuse to negotiate with us. Showing up on a picket line having not done anything to that effect is somewhat problematic.

Why problematic?

Because being seen with us on a picket line is important for the public image of a union supporting, socially minded, leftist politician. Understand, this is not a condemnation of any politician who has thus far done so. I understand that there is a real need for such political operatives to align themselves strategically with causes and voters that can help them get (re-)elected. I don’t judge anyone for acting on behalf of such a need. It’s a basic reality of the social matrix we live in.

However, I think that to do so in good faith means spending political capital on our behalf. It means putting pressure on the government and the university to treat us with some respect. It means holding them accountable for disseminating misinformation to the media about the relevant facts that are at the heart of this dispute.

I maintain that actions of this sort are the responsibility of any politician who wants to show solidarity with us. Telling us things we already know on the picket lines about the justness of our cause might lift some spirits, but we have picket captains who are skilled at keeping morale high. The benefit of political allies can and should go beyond the psychological. Sympathetic political operatives must engage the power dynamics that are at play in this conflict, power dynamics that remain largely opaque and inaccessible to those of us walking the picket lines. The folks responsible for these egregious funding policies are human beings, after all.

The good faith of the striking members of this union is measured by our actions and energy on the picket line. This is because we are the ones on strike and withholding our labor and disrupting the University is how we wield our power. The good faith of the politicians who wish to stand with us must be measured by the moves they make on our behalf in the public and political sphere off the picket lines, because that is where they wield their power. The administration will not meet with us. Perhaps they would meet with elected members of the provincial legislature?

I leave you with one final piece of music to keep your spirits high through the coming days:

In solidarity,

SMS

Open Letter to the University of Toronto Community

March 9, 2015

To the University of Toronto community,

Since the beginning of the strike involving Teaching Assistants(TAs), Course Instructors(CIs), lab assistants, and other education workers, there has been some confusion about the key issues and the nature of the University of Toronto’s (U of T) commitment to graduate students. This confusion has often been the result of the University Administration’s attempts to misconstrue numbers and validate their claims that the offer rejected by our membership was “fair and reasonable.” To correct the record and inform the discussion, we want to share the following key facts with you.

The truth about the tentative deal

Late last year our members voted 90% in favour of authorizing strike action. The vote saw the largest turnout for contract academic locals in Canadian history. The text on the ballot read: “I authorize the executive committee of CUPE 3902 to call a strike in the event that a collective agreement cannot be achieved through negotiation.” Since that time, administration members have known that fellowship funding was a central issue for our membership. This should be no surprise to them, considering it has been more than seven years since the fellowship was last increased – despite significant rising costs of living in the city of Toronto, increasing tuition at the university, and across-the-board salary increases for administrative staff.

Clearly, the University Administration did not take seriously our historic turnout or the clear mandate we gave our bargaining team. Instead, Administrators offered a bare minimum of bargaining dates, ignored undergraduate students, and declined an invitation from a consortium of student groups to speak at an open town hall, dismissing concerns with the claim that negotiations were going well. They waited until the final hours before the strike deadline to address the issue of funding at the bargaining table, and ultimately put forward a proposal that offered no increase to the fellowship. Instead, University Administrators offered a temporary fund that TAs and CIs could apply to in order to receive some money back. The bargaining team unanimously endorsed this proposal because it would, at least, put some money in members’ hands – even if on a one-time basis. The following day, the proposal was presented at the CUPE 3902 membership meeting in good faith. It was soundly defeated in a vote completely in accordance with our bylaws and constitution. First, the proposed fund offered unspecified payouts and did not address the core issue of increasing the fellowship itself. Second, even on this half-measure University. Administrators were unwilling to make a firm legal commitment, opting instead to issue a letter of intent. This meant that if they failed to follow through on their promises, members would have few legal means to compel them do so. More information about the tentative agreement and our position can be found here. University Administrators have characterized this strike action as a wage disagreement. This is regrettable: the strike is about funding. The focus on hourly wages is an attempt by the University Administration to obscure the facts.

Who profits from the students at U of T?

Over the past decade University Administrators have put profits before students. Being a graduate student is a full-time job and the primary source of income for graduate students is the university fellowship. Historically, the fellowship has been at the core of what is called the graduate funding package and all other sources of income are considered supplementary. University Administrators have not increased the $15,000 fellowship in over 7 years. Since 2005, U of T revenues have gone up 64% but profits have increased 395%. Student fees have gone from constituting 28% of university revenues to 38%. Rather than distribute this money back to students through fellowships, the university reports it as income.

Who teaches the students at U of T?

TAs, part-time, and non-tenured staff are responsible for more than 60% of the teaching at U of T. University Administrators claim that U of T has highly competitive instructor-to-student ratios but it is important to note who actually does the teaching. The number of full-time tenure and tenure stream faculty has increased by 8% but the U of T student body has grown by 25%. These circumstances create a structural interest in keeping fellowships below the poverty line. As a result graduate students are forced to prioritize TAships and other work over completing their degrees in a timely manner. This model also suppresses the demand for full-time professors and therefore causes harm to those who have finally managed to complete their PhDs. These conditions are bad for undergraduates, who are taught in overcrowded lecture halls, receive little faculty-interaction, and are unable to form lasting relationships with the influx of temporary lecturers. They are bad for graduate students who must choose between being overloaded with work that has little to do with their degree or living below the poverty line. They are bad for professors who are slowly being replaced by the captive labour of graduate students. And they are bad for our city, our province, and our country. As the largest and best-funded university in Canada, we can do better.

Who supports the student of U of T

U of T fellowships constitute only 17% of graduate support. Students support themselves. The bulk of what Administrators misleadingly call graduate support is actually income earned by students through teaching or research, prize money from scholarships and merit awards, or student loans. In fact, when a student who receives a U of T fellowship later wins prize money through an award, University Administrators require that the prize money be used to pay back the fellowship. Undergraduate students should take a moment to imagine if they were forced to hand over external scholarship money to the university instead of using it to support themselves and their studies.

By putting profits before people, University Administrators are creating an academic underclass at Canada’s largest post-secondary institution. We are pleased that the provost believes U of T students are among the very best and brightest. Nearly half of the graduate students in this group are on strike. Professors from across all three U of T campuses have issued statements of solidarity with this student movement. We urge University Administrators to return to the bargaining table and treat our concerns seriously. Universities are not for-profit corporations. Undergraduates are not customers. Graduate students are not interns. Faculty members are not expendable. This is not a matter of wages, it is a matter of reasserting our commitment to higher education, undergraduates, and graduate students.

Sincerely,

CUPE 3902

printable version here:Open Letter to the University of Toronto Community.pdf

No bargaining dates after a week

by Maria Iqbal, The Medium

The university still refuses to meet with Unit 1 a week into the strike, according to the unit’s vice-chair Ryan Culpepper.

After Unit 1 members voted down the tentative agreement, CUPE 3902 immediately issued a press release saying that the bargaining team was prepared to meet on short notice to continue negotiations.

VP human resources & equity Angela Hildyard said in a memo on Wednesday that the university will meet Unit 1 when the provincial mediator “thinks there is a basis to return to the bargaining table”.

Culpepper, vice-chair of Units 1 and 2, was sceptical.

“The mediator has only one job and that’s to bring the parties together,” he said. “I can’t believe that if the union is saying it’s ready to meet any time and the employer is saying it’s ready to meet any time that it’s somehow the mediator that’s the hurdle. It’s ludicrous.”

Link to original article

Letters to the Editor: Two PhD Students Weigh in on the Strike

by Nicole Daniel & Brian Law, The Varsity

Dear undergraduates of the University of Toronto,

I understand your frustration with the strike and I’m not asking for your support (although very welcome) but just the opportunity to explain my position, which is shared with many grad students. Like yourselves, we are frustrated with the high cost of your tuition, especially since it is unclear where all your money goes since those who do more than 60 per cent of the teaching at U of T account for only 3.5 per cent of the budget.

Graduate school might seem like a great deal, because we don’t pay tuition and get $15,000 in funding. However, many grads including myself are paying tuition ($8000-$20,000 a year) and nearly 60 per cent of that is earned through work as TAs, research assistants (RAs), and course instructors (CIs). Yes, we are paid $42/hour for this, but this is part of the $15,000, so wage increases mean nothing when the funding remains unchanged.

Link to original article

New Blog Location

Dear Friends,

The CUPE 3902 Unit 1 Strike Blog has changed locations.

From now on I (SMS), and those who wish to contribute, will be able to continue the blog from here at the weareuoft.ca webpage.

This is just a more consolidated way to move forward with things.

I’ll post something content oriented tonight or tomorrow.

Thank you for reading.

In solidarity,

SMS

Writer David Chariandy cancels reading at U of T to picket with CUPE 3902 

 

Dear CUPE 3902 (copied to Margeaux Feldman and Philip Sayers, English Graduate Students Association),

My name is David Chariandy, and I am a fiction writer and member of the department of English at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I am writing to inform you of my decision not to accept an invitation to read from my novel on campus this Friday, as currently advertised on the U of T department of English website. I am declining this invitation in order to indicate my solidarity with the striking 3902 teachers — including, of course, those teaching English — who all deserve fair pay and security for the crucial work they perform at the University of Toronto.

Sincerely,

David Chariandy