26 January 2009


All the factions at York are stuck in a lockstep death march to establish definitively who is the bigger idiot. The Union, Management, and now the NDP are all neck in neck for the 'prize'. The NDP is particularly amusing, since its support base consists mainly of unions and academics and students. It had to choose which group to alienate to come to its current decision. Sorry, students.

As for the union- I have a little sympathy for one of the groups within the union. The reports you hear on the news are not accurate, or they are distortions. The MSM is getting its news mainly from administration press releases which is skewing the information to put itself in the best possible light and the strikers in the worst. Here's my take, with little background.

The Union represents three distinct groups: Contract Staff, Teaching Assistants and the Graduate Assistants. The reports I have seen and read generally report the TA situation as though it were for the whole union. For example, it's the TA's who by contract work only 10 hours a week, and the TA's who originally wanted the 30% raise. Incidentally, my sources tell me they were willing to take the offer, but more on that in a bit.

Having been a TA, let me address a few of the issues here. I said "by contract they work only ten hours a week". That is what the contract says. That is not necessarily what happens. The ten hour stipulation comes from the sixties, when the average class size was twelve. Over the years and through several negotiations, that size has been increased by increments. You can imagine how it went: "If you guys can handle twelve, what's fifteen? And if you can handle fifteen, twenty isn't all that different. And if you can handle twenty, twenty five is a piece of cake." So the class size has more than doubled, yet the university has not admitted that teaching twenty-five is more work than teaching twelve.

And it is more work. In a larger class the dynamic shifts to a greater focus on the teacher and less on the students. S/he has to be more prepared, as the class becomes almost a mini lecture. Yet every year I had to fill out a schedule showing how I would not work more than ten hours a week on average. I came to York because I wanted to be a writer. I got into the program and I wrote and I wrote. I studied writing there for a few years before the incompetent program put in place drilled any desire to write out of me, but before then I wrote a lot of fiction, but by far the biggest and most fictional piece of writing I ever did at York was that schedule. I doubt my experience was unique.

I taught Shakespeare. We studied a new play every two weeks, except the times we studied the two tetralogies (first tetralogy: Henry VI parts i,ii,iii and Richard III; 2nd: Richard II, Henry IV parts i and ii, Henry V) in which case we did four plays in two weeks. So I was constantly re-reading the plays- which is about three or four hours each, and sometimes more. Lets say 1.5 hours per week. Add on to that the class time- a one hour lecture, two hour class plus one hour office hour and we're up to 5.5 hours per week. In addition to reading the plays I had to prepare myself on the latest scholarship regarding Shakespeare in general and also the individual plays in particular. How much reading would that be? Keep in mind that with my large class I had to address a wide variety of concerns of the students, so on any given day I may discuss Shakespeare from a New Historical, Cultural Materialism, Feminism, Marxist, Deconstruction, Structuralism, Discourse Analysis or just plain traditional critical approach, whatever that may be, perspective. Any guesses how long it would take to bone up on all that for any particular play? Keep in mind that if you say more than 4.5 hours, you've just crossed the ten hour mark. Also keep in mind two more things: 1. After studying all these perspectives, I would have to come up with coherent class plan, and that time should be added in as well, and 2. I haven't mentioned time spent marking.

In addition to this we were also contractually obligated not to hold a second job for longer than 14 hours a week. Breaking this rule could lead to serious consequences, so we were stuck with what we got as TA's.

The TA's are asking for a huge wage increase, especially considering the current economic trend. Why are they asking for so huge an increase? Because they need it. Why do they need it? Because of their union brothers, the Contract Staff.

When I first taught back in the 90's, I was paid about 10,000 a year, while living in Toronto, one of Canada's most expensive cities at the time. From that money came my tuition, rent, food, clothing etc etc etc. I had a second job (and a third under the table job as well,) in an effort to keep from going under. I had been a TA for all of two weeks when we had our first strike vote. Leading up to the vote the union had been sending us updates informing us of how negotiations were going- they weren't- and what they were demanding for each unit within the union. I went to the vote, my first, past people chanting slogans and holding signs stating that we were all together, and no one could break our solidarity. As we settled in the auditorium, the bargaining team came in, bleary eyed and exhausted. They had reached a tentative agreement at two o'clock that morning. It was being handed out now. (This happened at every subsequent strike meeting I attended. It is a clever move on the part of management as it means that we will only have about twenty minutes to examine the agreement before we were to vote on it. Lots could be put into fine print that would never be seen.) I glanced down the agreement. The contract staff made progress down the line of their demands. The T.A.'s got... nothing. Almost nothing. The university offered us a dental plan we had never asked for. The deal split this oh so solid union, and the contract staff sold out the TA's. Any guilt they may have felt was assuaged by the knowledge that the TA's at least got a dental plan. That dental plan, by the way, did not last. Within a year they had reduced the benefits. A few years after that it was made it voluntary, and we had to pay into it. I have no doubt the administration planned this from the beginning.

All subsequent negotiations were repeats of the first. The difference between my final contract salary as a TA and my first was five cents. Not per hour, not per week nor per month, but in total, per annum. Not even one cent a year. Meanwhile, my tuition had doubled.

The administration got caught in its own cleverness a few years later. They seemed to run the university biblically, which is to say their right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. As a new round of negotiations came up the university once again began making concessions to the contract staff, seemingly unaware that, in an effort to reduce costs incurred in part by giving better and better deals to the contract staff, they began using more and more of the poor TA's. As a result, there were enough TAs to force a strike.

That was a few years back. Although the news coverage focuses on the TA raise, the main issue here is Contract Staff job security. They want longer contracts, up to ten years. This would nearly defeat the purpose of having contract staff, but I digress. Contract staff is tough work. You don't know if you will have a position from year to year. Some of them are like gypsies, travelling around, going from one contract to another, maybe.

There is a rumour going around, and a few TA's I know confirmed it, that the TA's were threatened by the other units at one of the union meetings. If they did not support the strike, the union would not negotiate for them any further were the strike to happen anyway. Even more, they were told they would not get strike pay if they sold out the other units. Strong words, from the units that sold out the TA's repeatedly.

The union rejected the offer of binding arbitration. That means they know their position is untenable. They're holding on to it still.

Adminstration, staff, they deserve each other and the NDP as well. Higher education, indeed. Only the very educated can be this truly stupid.

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