2 March 2015

On Teaching Assistants, strikes, unions and weakness in numbers

I have heard that the T.A.'s over at the UofT have gone on strike.   YorkU Teaching Assistants, Contract Staff and GA's will be voting on a strike tomorrow.  It brought back some memories of my own time as a T.A. and the oddities of our union. 

Information is sparse on the strike, and what little I heard seemed to be skewed in favour of the administration.   I heard on the news today that the TA's at UoT turned down an offer that would have amounted to $44 per hour.  It sounds like a lot, but, assuming their system is similar to the one I experienced at my university, there's a few twists to that number.    When I was a TA, every year we had to sign off on a piece of paper that said we would only spend an average of ten hours a week working as a TA, and then schedule our time to show that we would stay within that average.  Writing that schedule was some of the finest Creative Writing I ever did.  If one was diligent and earnest in their work as a TA, one went way over that limit.

For example:  Three hours are gone off the top from simply attending the one hour lecture and the two hour tutorial. We were also expected to keep one office hour per week for the students to meet with us and discuss any individual problems they may have.  That's four hours.   I taught Shakespeare, and we went over a new play every other week, except for the weeks where the professor scheduled the two tetralogies, in which case it was four plays every other week.  Plus, we were expected to teach the class on the latest developments in the field, as well as teach them a historical perspective of the criticism and interpretation of the plays.  How many articles- each of which takes on average an hour to and hour and a half to read- does one need to read in order to be on top of the field, both current and historical, and how that question  relates to each individual play?  Is two articles enough?  Three?  Four?  Should we also read the books on the topic?  Seems irresponsible to leave them out.  And once one has this knowledge, one is expected to transform it into a lesson plan for the class.  And then three's grading, marking, and the other stuff that comes with being a teacher.  Ten hours my foot.

Another fun fact about the ten hours.  At my university, that time was allotted back in the sixties, when the average class size was twelve.  In the intervening years the administration brought the numbers up bit by bit.  I imagine the negotiations went like this: "If you can do twelve, you can do fifteen.  Fifteen is hardly more than twelve.  And if you can do fifteen, you can do twenty.  What's another five?  And if you can do twenty, twenty five is really no different...."  The administration more than doubled our class size, but at no point did they admit that maybe, just maybe, teaching twenty five students was more work and took more time than teaching  twelve.  And, by the way, we also had to sign an agreement that we would not work more than fourteen hours at any other second job we may have,  We were there to study and learn, after all.

So, to return to the original point:  Forty four dollars an hour may sound like a lot, but in reality, not so much.  It's $440/wk gross for about eight months a year.  

Next up: Unions!  I have said in the past I have a great amount of respect for what the unions have achieved historically.   What they do these days, not so much.  My old TA union was formed in a manner so asinine only the truly educated would have thought it was good.    The union had decided that mere democracy was insufficient, and that we would be super-democratic, which meant that we couldn't just go on strike when fifty percent plus one of the members said so, we needed sixty percent.

That decision, plus with the union seeking strength in numbers firmly placed us under the thumb of the administration.  The union, for all the supposed brain power we were supposed to have, did not understand the concept of the dummy shareholder.  It's a simple concept, and it goes like this: Imagine a company where all the stock is owned by three people, and 51% of the voting stock is required to decide policy.  One owns 49% of the stock, one owns 44%, and the last owns 7%.   Believe it or not, they share power equally.  Any two of the three will add up to majority numbers and decide the policy.  Now imagine a company where there are four owners of the stock.  Two own 27%, one owns 24%, and the last owns the remaining 22%.  Despite the fact that the numbers are close, the fourth owner has no power and plays no part in the decision making.  Any two of the other three can add up to a majority, but he cannot make a majority with anyone.  He is the dummy shareholder.

Our union had a similar problem.  We had joined two groups together - TA's and Contract staff- for the sake of strength in numbers,  It was folly.  Consider that the union is not really a homogeneous entity.  For any strike vote, there will be a certain percentage that will vote for the strike, virtually no matter what, and a certain percentage that will vote against it, also pretty much no matter what.  The rest are varying degrees of wait and see, but the wait and see crowd are divided into two- contract and TA.  Let's put some numbers to it.  Say half are already decided and they are split 25% each into yes or no on the strike question.  The other half are wait and see, and thirty percent are TA's, and the remaining twenty are contract.  Neither group alone can force the strike when sixty percent is required for the strike, but either could force the union to not strike if they vote against it.  It is in the administration's interest to turn the smaller group- as it would be cheaper to make concessions to the smaller group than the larger.  The TA's were the dummy shareholders of the union.

That exact scenario played out every time we had negotiations when I was a TA.  We would assemble for the strike vote, and the negotiating team would stagger in bleary eyed and announce that they reached a tentative agreement at 3:00 in the morning, and the agreement is being handed out now.  It was a cunning move on the part of the administration.  On top of everything else, we would be voting on an agreement after only five minutes of examination, with no time to read the fine print.  Each time, the contract staff was given some concessions and the TA's were given nothing.  Some debate followed, the question was called, and the vote taken, and each time the contract staff took their deal and sold out the TA's.  There was really nothing we could do about it.  During my six years as a TA, my salary increased by a grand total of five cents per annum.  And not even five cents per year- five cents across six years.  Meanwhile, my tuition more than doubled.

Some years ago the professors went out on strike here.  They joined their union with the Librarians.  It was an absolute coup on the part of the professors.  TA's and Contract staff can do the work of the professors, but only a librarian can run the library.  Back then, before the internet became what it is today, the library was the heart of the university.  I would go so far as to say no library, no university.  So having the librarians on board increased the leverage of the professors immensely.  But as smart as it was for the professors to join with the librarians- that's how stupid it was for the librarians to join with the professors.  Alone they were powerful.  In the professors union they were a fraction of the vote.  They had no power to do anything, and the professors used them.

So, I am hoping the strikes can be avoided and ended soon.  I don't like strikes- they are a disaster for all involved.  I would like to see a just agreement reached, but the very institution set up to ensure that- the union- has organized itself so badly that justice is the last thing that will happen.   They organized on the principle that there is strength in numbers, and lacked the math to understand that there is a great weakness in numbers as well.

UPDATE:  I feel compelled at this moment, to point out that there is one way that circumvents all the number problems:  for the union board to reject all tentative agreements.  Should the board have nothing to present the union membership, the union will almost certainly and overwhelmingly vote to strike.  Which, according to scuttlebutt, may be exactly what is happening now....

UPDATE 2:  Forget scuttlebutt.  The union itself is saying that's what happened.    That makes a strike all but inevitable.  O joy.

No comments: