Graduate-workers at the University of Toronto are on strike. Over the last two weeks we have seen thousands of students bear lacerating winds, freezing temperatures, and ice-strewn streets in marches and pickets. These mobilizational gestures have been designed to force administrators to recognize the value of graduate-worker labor at the university. As a participant in this movement, I have had the privilege of witnessing the unity and bravery of my colleagues first hand, as we have sang, walked, educated, and conversed our way through two weeks of peaceful political action.
We have gone from our shuttered libraries and cloistered carrels into the streets, our political values now being realized in concrete social action. The feeling of joy over our newfound solidarity, combined with our bitter disappointment over the callousness with which our employer has treated us, has been a heady, transformative mix over the last two weeks.
The stakes of the battle are both simple and complex. The long and the short of it is this: graduate students at U of T receive 15,000 dollars in minimum funding, generally for five academic years, in order to complete their PhD programs. As part of that funding package, students are required to work as TAs and Course Instructors. For this, we are paid roughly 9,000 dollars each year. The rest of the funding package- roughly 6,000 dollars- is given as a research stipend. But in order to get the stipend one must labor for the university. There is no way to get up to the 15,000 dollar limit without doing the 9,000 dollars worth of labor first.
The union had gone into the latest round of negotiating wanting to increase the funding package so that it reached the poverty line in Ontario, which stands at roughly 19,000 dollars for a single adult and 23,000 dollars for those with a child. Graduate workers at U of T are stuck in the terrible position of living a full 4,000 dollars below the poverty line, a shameful reality for Canada’s wealthiest and most prestigious university.
Some lucky graduate students who receive outside sources of funding- be they from federal research grants or foreign government awards- are able to get above that number. But federal funding has remained under constant budgetary pressure in recent years, becoming ever more difficult to acquire. As such, a substantial number of graduate students at U of T must subsist on the 15,000 dollar funding package alone. It should require no strenuous argument to convince anyone it is not possible to live for twelve months in the city of Toronto on such a paltry sum.
Working Cogs at the University
In exchange for this below-the-poverty line funding package, graduate students are forced to do hundreds of hours a semester of labor, a portion of which goes unpaid. Such labor consists of running tutorials, preparing readings, marking assignments, meeting with students for individual tutoring, and conducting administrative work for an individual class. A standard graduate student TA contract consists of 105 hours for one semester of work, which would equate to roughly 7.5 hours a week. But with hundreds of students in most introductory classes, everyone at the university knows that TAs do far more hours a week of work than they are actually paid for.
The university allocates hours by minutes used per assignment. On their contract a TA can be allocated an impossible amount of time to conduct most of their work: ten minutes to read, grade, and comment on a ten page paper; mere minutes to do the same for multipage reading responses; and hard-cap limits of time to converse with students, when of course there are always more of them who want to meet for discussions and advice. Given that it can take up to double the amount of time to accomplish most tasks on the TA contract, it is not an exaggeration in any way to suggest that most TAs do a substantial number of hours of unpaid labor each semester.
Without this (only partially-paid for) TA labor, no academic department in the Faculty of Arts and Science would function. Professors provide generally two hours of lecturing a week per class, an hour or two of office hours, and that’s it. The rest of the labor of a class falls on the TAs, including marking assignments, preparing readings, fielding student inquiries, conducting tutorials, and inputting weighted grades. The professors are not required to take on any of this labor themselves, and as such, the nuts and bolts of a class are actually left to TAs to manage. It is no wonder that in most first and second year classes students won’t even know the name of their professor, but will interface with their TAs on a weekly basis.
Seen from a pure utility stand point, TAs are in fact the most valuable part of the academic machine. No professor would offer to grade 1200 papers in a first year political-science class. No professor would offer to teach five tutorials a week. They would insist that this would turn them into nothing but teachers, just like their elementary and high school counterparts, rather than the research professors their years of academic training have prepared them to be.
As such, the current labor battle is a struggle to provide some level of material dignity to the cheapest- yet most widely used- laborers at the university. TAs actually do the hard work of teaching and evaluating the thousands of students who come through departments every semester, while getting paid an annual salary that is well below the poverty line to do so. We are essential yet neglected, overworked yet underpaid, and this strike is about rectifying that dominated position we have been in for far too long.
Honesty in Public Policy
The current labor battle touched off when the administration refused to increase the 15,000 dollar funding package to anything close to the poverty line. Despite having publicly admitted the insufficient nature of the minimum funding package, as well as being flush with hundred million dollar surpluses the last two years, the university refused to increase graduate student funding by even a modest amount.
Further incensing graduate students has been the dishonesty that has defined the university’s public position. The university has stated that the current contract offer includes a wage increase. Yet they know that examining this issue from the perspective of wages, rather than annual stipend, is confusing and disingenuous, particularly for a wider public unfamiliar with the particularities of academic funding models.
While the university has offered a two dollar wage increase on the rate of pay for TA work, they have not increased the overall funding package past 15,000 dollars. That is to say, a graduate student may be getting two more dollars an hour on paid labor, but that pay is not contributing to an increase in the money they will take home annually. That will remain at 15,000 dollars a year, win lose or draw.
In this labor battle, wages are a secondary issue. It is the size of the guaranteed funding package that is at stake. By the university’s very own admission the funding package is not enough. Curiously, they have forced graduate students into a strike action to rectify a problem that they’ve recognized needs to be fixed, but refuse to do anything to actually address.
The university has publicly stated that they will not negotiate around the funding package, only on hourly wages. To defend this position they put forward the ridiculous claim that our work as TAs and our overall funding stipend should be categorically separate. They fail to tell the public that the negotiated TA work is only available to us as a means of getting us to the minimum funding amount. There is language in the collective bargaining agreement around the funding package precisely because past administrations recognized it as the larger financial goal that graduate students would work towards in order to survive in the city of Toronto. To increase wages on TA work but not raise the overall ceiling on the funding package is a shell game: work for more per hour, but take home the same amount per year.
It is this bureaucratic double speak that has, more than anything, incensed graduate students. For administrators with publicly-funded six figure salaries, nine to five schedules, gold-plated pensions, and lifetime job security to have the gall to suggest that we should not bargain for an increase on our poverty funding is astounding.
Has the tenured, six figured coziness of administrative life robbed university leaders of the ability to imagine how difficult it is to live below the poverty line in Canada’s most expensive city?
How long will we have to march, with our children and book bags in tow, outside of administrator’s offices, chanting for them to come see us, before they realize that their university relies for its operations on impoverished graduate students?
When undergraduates learn about how much their teachers really make at the end of each year- versus how much energy, creativity, and empathy we put into our teaching- they too are ashamed of their university. Never did they think that a university with such high tuition, and with such pretensions to greatness, would rely on impoverished students for its most important academic operations.
A Once and Future University
In their recruitment literature the university enjoys boasting that U of T students are the brightest minds in this country. We are told that we are the future cultural, political, and intellectual leaders of Canadian society. Yet they are happy to fling us onto the street, protesting for scraps of the overall funding budget, merely so we can ensure material dignity for each worker at this university.
The stark reality is this: 60% of the teaching at the university is done by TAs, sessional teachers, and contract instructors. Yet only 3.5% of the university’s annual budget is given to them. They are the most essential part of the university’s academic operations, and the most ruthlessly underpaid and undervalued. That university administrators would not want to do everything in their power to rectify this situation- to make these social wrongs right- is astounding. It can be described as nothing short of a massive dereliction of leadership at the country’s largest and most prestigious university.
What makes the administration’s position all the more galling is that, without us, there are no tutorials, no blackboard inputs, no graded papers, no invigilated exams, no quantifiable marks that any education actually occurred during a semester. Simply put, without us, there would be no U of T.
Yet still they treat us like second-class citizens at the university. We are neither customer (undergraduate) nor full-time staff (tenured faculty). We are needed, but discardable. Useful, but not worthy of an annual salary above the poverty line.
We refuse to be treated so disrespectfully anymore. We will see how far the administration can make it without us. When final exam time rolls around, and professors refuse to mark the tens of thousands of assignments that have piled up, when students start demanding refunds for a lost semester, when the university will be unable to manage disrupted credit schedules and course trajectories…we’ll see how essential we are.
It has come to this. But it needn’t be so. There is still time for administrators to do what’s right: give your workers the same laboring dignity that you so grandiosely offer yourselves. Never again should even one graduate-worker be forced to live below the poverty line at Canada’s most hallowed university.
A new era of inclusion and empathy is possible. But if the graduate stipend is not increased, then the struggle will continue. For it is the administrators who will have decided to keep their most essential workers locked in poverty.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.