#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 
administration · emotional labour · gradschool · guest post · ideas for change · politics · solidarity · strike

Striking across Borders

Striking is in the air, dear feminists. As I write this, my partner David Klassen sits with his fellow NYU AWDU bargaining committee members in a room with the notoriously pernicious and overpaid NYU Board of Trustees, negotiating for a fair contract for graduate student workers. If they don’t come to an agreement tonight (update: THEY DID!), strike action is planned for the rest of the week, joining our picketing friends across the border at York at the University of Toronto. The meeting stands as the culmination of over a year of other meetings and negotiations and protests and demonstrations since they resumed their status as the only private school in America with a graduate student union, and I have watched from afar as my partner has volunteered his time and physical and mental energy to fighting for this cause–doing so, ironically enough, without pay, dedicating time to collective action that he could be spending on his dissertation. Notably, four out of the five members of the reform caucus (AWDU: Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) are female. I have no doubt that they are similarly dedicated and fantastic, and probably similarly exhausted. 


One of the most compelling recent developments is the swelling of support from undergraduates, over 500 of whom have signed a petition which, amongst other things, avers that “[g]raduate student working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions,” because “[g]raduate students teach our sections, grade our papers and exams, answer our emails late at night, and support our academic growth.” Uh, sob! Rarely do we see such bonds formed between undergraduate and graduate students. An impressive number of undergraduate and graduate allies gathered earlier for a sit-in outside the meeting, demonstrating support and solidarity, and forming a gauntlet as the admin officials entered.

Since it seems as though there’s a growing climate of change and protest against precarious working conditions in academia which is spreading across many former divisions and borders these days–including #NAWD two weeks ago–I wanted to set the actions in Canada and the States in conversation with each other a little more intentionally. I’m not qualified to discuss the U of T/York strikes; however, I got in touch with my friend Norman Mack, a doctoral student in the English Department at U of T, and he was generous enough to type out some answers to my questions. The following is lightly amended from our online exchange: 

Photo: Norman Mack


Q. How (if at all) has the strike brought the student body together?

NM: Solidarity and camaraderie have never been stronger than with this strike. From the strike vote last November on (which saw a record turnout and record yes votes in favour of the strike), there has been a widespread concern over the state of the funding package, and its depreciation over the years since it was last negotiated in 2009 (the year of the last increase in the minimum funding package from $13,500 to the present value of $15,000).

On the picket lines (in this I can only speak from my own experience), there has been as much support from the undergraduate community as here have been uninterestedness and hostilities. I get the sense, however, that support from undergraduates is increasing judging by social media and the students who are everywhere reported to be approaching us expressing sympathies. This increasing support is likely in large part due to the Administration’s tactics thus far: their misrepresentation of facts and the insistence that, despite a work stoppage that’s disrupting classes for thousands of students, the university can function normally.

Furthermore, because of the high number of CUPE3902 members showing up for picket duty and marches, the most varied bonds and conversations are occurring across the many faculties at the university and across the three campuses, particularly on social media, which otherwise might never manifest. There is undoubtedly a community forming, all determined to attain significant gains through the strike.

Q. How do you balance striking action alongside all your other demanding work as a graduate student? 

NM: Again, I can speak only for myself and perhaps those in my particular situation in my department (English): the problem of balance has not been easy. Unlike York University, which has also been on strike since [last] Tuesday, the University of Toronto has decided to continue with classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For graduate students like myself, who are taking a full course load, the combination of picketing for upwards of 20 hours a week (along with other strike-related activities) and keeping up with course work has been incredibly taxing. This is not to say that others, who are either preparing for candidacy exams or writing/researching for their dissertations, have it easier. Many have expressed how exhausting this last week has been, particularly as the weather has not been kind, reaching upwards of -24 degrees with either snow or freezing rain. And yet, there remains a strong sense of commitment to the strike, particularly those in the humanities, those in other words who both stand the most precarious, the most at risk.

Q. Do you believe that collective action will benefit your graduate education (even if you don’t get the results you desire)? 

NM: As I’ve mentioned above, I believe that strong ties are forming both internal and external to those represented by CUPE3902. As I write this, more and more open letters of support are emerging from both faculty and students. (For a particularly strong version of this, see an open letter by Dr. Paul Downes, Dept. of English) If the new buzzword of the university today is interdisciplinarity and collaboration, there has been no better example of these practices than those in the strike I have witnessed thusfar.

Of course, the goal is ultimately to raise the standard of living for the most precarious of our ranks: those who are living on $15,000 a year in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed since our last increase; those who are finding themselves past the funded cohort trying to finish their dissertations while making ends meet with low-paying TAships or Instructorships, and in some cases part-time or full-time work outside the academy, while also paying some of the highest tuition in Canada ($8,500/year in my department). Many of us are in this fight with much on the line. It was not an easy choice, but it was a necessary one. And we intend to win.

Photo: Norman Mack

———
HUGE thanks to Norman for answering these questions so thoughtfully, expertly, and thoroughly. We at H&E extend you and your comrades our warmest wishes of solidarity and support as you continue the fight. May NYU’s victory give you hope!

This post has been edited to correct an error in the original: I had said that 7/8 bargaining committee members are women, but in fact there are two other men.