Why Parents and Students Should Care About the University of Toronto Strike—Updated [Opinion]

For the fourth week now, more than 6,000 teaching assistants (TAs), course instructors, and graders at the University of Toronto are on strike.

We’re Unit 1 of CUPE 3902, the Canadian Union of Public Employees. There’s a lot we’re striking for, but our message has been hard to get to the people who matter: You, the prospective college students and parents. We’re also striking for you.

Working Conditions Are Learning Conditions

How are you affected by the working conditions of TAs at U of T? As we say on the picket lines, working conditions are learning conditions; our employment is based on a funding package of $15,000 Canadian dollars (CAD) per year to live on, which is $4,000 below the 2011 post-tax “Low-Income Cutoff” for Ontario, as measured by Statistics Canada.

The University of Toronto claims that this isn’t a salary, despite the fact that most of us are forbidden from taking any other employment. In light of this contractual arrangement, there is literally no way for TAs to make more money other than for U of T to pay them more.

Graduate student workers are living and working in extreme poverty, a state that makes it harder to fulfill our graduate responsibilities and think clearly about difficult tasks, such as teaching a class or writing a dissertation. Being poor means we can do less for our undergraduates. It also means that each moment we spend on something other than our research is precious: We literally can’t afford it.

The University claims that TAs aren’t living in poverty because we make a very high wage per hour of teaching. Our hourly wage for the TA-ships we hold is allegedly in the area of $42 per hour for approximately 210 hours of work. That sounds great! But once you realize that our salaries are capped at $15,000 per year, regardless of how many hours we work, the numbers start to look a little odd.

Graduate student workers really are workers — our research is part of what makes this a world class university, and it takes a lot of time. Let’s say that we work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year (a generous estimate, since researching takes much more time); if we earn $15,000 for our total annual hours, we get an hourly wage of $7.50. Ontario’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.

We still can’t afford to eat.

That’s why we’re asking for a raise for every graduate student worker to a funding package of $17,500 — which still doesn’t even put us above the poverty line. All we’re asking is that the package we were given 15 years ago be brought up to today’s living standards. We’re working harder and harder for less and less money, and when we feel that pinch, students feel it, too — no matter how hard we try to protect them.

It’s important to understand that the number of work hours allotted to TAs (which are set by the University) impact our working conditions. The current quantity and overall cap are not beneficial for undergraduates.

How Much Time Does the University Give Its Students?

When we get paid by U of T, they tell us which work we get paid for and how much time we’re allowed to spend on it. This means that we don’t get paid for much of the work that matters most: giving students feedback and guiding their intellectual process. Worse still, students don’t understand what each TA is paid to do, because the specifications vary from course to course and department to department, with no standardization or transparency. That means that every time a student enrolls in a new class at U of T, they have no idea what they can expect from their TA.

Over the course of this strike, I’ve spoken with graduate student workers from a number of departments across the University about the contractual hourly allotments, and I’ve found that they are minimal and shrinking. Here’s a stunning and incomplete collection of the feedback I received:

Preparation Pay

  • Many TAs whose courses included lengthy literary works were given zero paid hours for reading those works, forcing them to choose between either working a full unpaid day each week to learn material that may have nothing to do with their research, or turning up to teach classes without having read the books necessary to be adequately prepared.

  • Many TAs are given zero paid hours to attend lectures, even in those courses for which tutorials can’t be taught without attending the lectures, forcing them to choose between working multiple unpaid hours each week or turning up to teach class without knowing the material.

  • TAs are paid for one, or even two, hours of tutorial preparation per week, but the TAs I spoke with reported that a quality tutorial requires between 3–5 hours to prepare.

Unpaid Work

  • Course instructors get paid the same amount, regardless of their course enrollment; this means that as the number of students in their courses increases — and hence, the amount of work necessary to meet all of their needs — each working hour is worth less pay.

  • TAs who study at the main campus but are assigned to work at satellite campuses (something which each individual department controls) are not paid for their commuting time. As a result, they spend up to two hours of unpaid time in transit for each day that they lead a tutorial or need to pick up materials to grade.

  • Course assignments aren’t always in the worker’s area of expertise. If you’re a Cold War historian grading papers for a class on early modern religious history, any time you need to spend to master the material to be able to grade correctly is unpaid.

Grading and Feedback

  • TAs are often directed to give “extensive feedback” on written assignments, even though no time is included for this work in hourly allotments.

  • Students’ actual assignments don’t always align with the terms of the contract: A “quiz” that TAs are given 3–5 minutes to mark and give feedback on can turn out to be a short essay or a detailed proposal.

  • Across the campus, the average length of time most often cited by TAs and graders as allocated for final papers — which can include tables, maps, or graphs running to 15 total pages — were approximately 18–20 minutes. Most people reported that this was barely enough time to read the work students had spent weeks on, let alone give any kind of feedback.

  • Some TAs reported having as little as 8–10 minutes to grade short essays according to the contract.

  • The length of time TAs have to grade students’ final exams — which they spend approximately three hours on — were most often around 18–20 minutes. One-hour exams were granted a grading time of around 10 minutes in most departments, dropping to an astonishing low of 7–8 minutes in some cases.

  • Many TAs reported as few as 15 minutes per week allotted to answer students’ emails, despite needing approximately that much time to answer each one effectively.

The bitter truth is that I don’t know any TAs who actually stick to those contract numbers. I know some who pull all-nighters to grade and provide feedback on their students’ essays. I know TAs who hold unpaid office hours, who spend unpaid hours on email, and most of all, who spend many, many unpaid hours to master the material they need to teach their classes.

Grading an essay or an exam, more often than not, requires more than 20 minutes. One of the University’s offers (which the membership rejected) would have capped our working hours for TA-ships at a lower level. That may sound as if it would relieve us somewhat — except that enrollment is going up, and there’s simply a minimum amount of time necessary to do your job effectively. Capping these hours won’t change a thing, except to give the University more free labor.

A Walmart Education

Here’s how this affects you, even if you don’t attend U of T or send your child here: We’re at a tipping point. This Walmart-esque model of academic instruction is spreading rapidly throughout institutions of higher education, with more and more students taught by TAs or sessional instructors (whose situation is the same as or worse than that of TAs). Tutorial and lab sizes have ballooned in the past decade, despite promises in University pamphlets that undergraduates will always get personal attention in class. Tuition is up across North America, as are administrative salaries. Graduate student workers are given fewer resources and more responsibility. Unit 1 of CUPE 3902 and its sister unit on strike at York University are not outliers. We’re just the visible tip of the iceberg.

We’re doing what we can. We’re out on the picket lines in the Canadian cold and snow, ringing our bells and banging our drums. We’re holding rallies and organizing with supportive undergraduates, over 3,000 of whom walked out of class last week in solidarity with us. Our bargaining team has worked themselves to the bone. Some of us are relying on food banks so that we can continue to deny our labor to the university and hold the line while we wait for strike pay to come through from the union. This commitment is critical, but it’s not enough. We also hope to gain the support of the people paying undergraduate tuition, and that’s you. We invite you to stand in solidarity with us.

If you’re able, please let the U of T administration know that you’re concerned about the state of undergraduate education at a supposedly world-class university. You can contact our administration here:

Angela Hildyard, Vice President, Human Resources & Equity
[email protected]

Cheryl Regehr, Vice-President, Academic & Provost
[email protected]

Jill Matus, Vice-Provost
[email protected]

Sandy Welsh, Vice-Dean, Graduate Education (Arts and Sciences)
[email protected]

Meric Gertler, President
[email protected]

You can also tweet using the hashtag #WeAreUofT or post to Facebook.

We’re on strike for a living wage, and we’re on strike for our students. Education is important to us, and we know it’s important to you. It’s time that it be important to the University of Toronto, too.

Update: As of 12 hours before publication, CUPE 3902-01 has agreed to third-party arbitration and will be returning to work without knowing what decision will be made about their contract. Now is therefore an especially crucial time for the University of Toronto to hear public opinion about the condition of their graduate student workers.

Kaitlin Heller is a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She is lucky to hold a government grant, which means that, unlike her colleagues, she lives above the poverty line and can devote time to writing op-eds. She stands with her union.

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