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On the York University/CUPE 3903 Strike of 2008

The deal that CUPE 3903, the union of teaching assistants and contract faculty (who are paid by the course) at York University, is asking for -- increased wages, benefits, and job security for contract faculty -- won't overthrow all of the unfairness in the University or between the University and society. But it would make things a little less unfair.

In the University, as elsewhere in the economy, full-time positions are scarce and contract positions are disadvantaged. In the university sector contract positions are offered much more pervasively today than they used to be. If the University is driven purely by short-term financial considerations, there appear to be incentives to skew the faculty even more heavily toward contract professors. But this is (a) a long-term problem in terms of both career development options and academic freedom, and (b) particularly unfair given the increased tuition, decreased financial assistance and restrictive work rules with which today's fledgling professors have to deal. I will explain these points more below.

Consider the financial options of the two components of CUPE 3903. Graduate students at York have the following financial options:

1.Try to live in the city on the $10-20,000 above tuition (depending on success and, it must be said, luck in getting scholarships) that makes up a full-time student's funding package.

2.Borrow additional money as needed, especially if your scholarship efforts are unsuccessful, and graduate with a lot of debt.

3.Take on additional teaching or other work to meet expenses, and thus increase the amount of time it will take to finish. And besides, to work more than 10 hours a week is to risk losing your status as a full-time student and thus lose the funding package full time students get.

4.Live with your parents (only an option if they happen to live in the right city, which can't be taken for granted in graduate school) and thus defer your dreams of living independently as an adult (or starting a family), and perhaps the parents own ideas of how they'd live once their children are grown.

For those not independently wealthy, those are the options: debt, dependence, or off-the-books work.

The choices for an undergraduate student are not much different.

1.Live with your parents and go to school where they live (dependence).

2.Borrow money to go to school (debt).

3.Work while studying - probably at low wages, which means working a lot of hours (off the books work), at the cost of studying.

A new PhD faces an academic job market. The dream at this point is to land a tenure-track academic position in the field. These are rare - a point I'll return to - competition is fierce, and an academic must be prepared to move to wherever the job is. While hoping for such an opportunity to come up, new PhDs have the following options.

1.Seek a research fellowship (also rare and competitive) to improve your credentials.

2.Teach on a contract basis (which is grossly underpaid compared to the same work done by tenured faculty) to get experience, improve credentials, and continue the search for a full-time job.

It is possible to make the best of a situation like this. The problem is simply that it is not the best way to design a system. It is not fair, and it is getting worse.

For graduate students (as well as for undergraduates, of course), tuition keeps going up. In most cities, housing costs and rents continually increase (mortgage meltdowns are not lowering Toronto rents). Guaranteed funding packages for full-time students are nice, but not so nice if the wages and benefits are eroded every few years.

And what of the job market? Well, it's an economic downturn, they keep telling us. So we have to take what we can get, they keep saying. But let's think about this for a second. Universities are involved in several businesses, among them collecting tuition (and government funding, taxpayer's money) to pay faculty members to teach students. This teaching is done by full-time professors and by part-time, contract professors. The students pay the same (rising) tuition regardless of who is teaching them. Universities, on the other hand, pay contract faculty less in wages and much less in benefits.

Contract faculty also have no job security. They apply every year to teach courses. They can design a course, develop it from scratch, do a stellar job teaching it to students who love it and learn from it, and then apply again the next year and not get the job. Pensions and other benefit payments are deducted from their pay, but re-set with each contract, and most of them won't get a pension at all. They're just paying into it with no payout.

You might ask: but people aren't supposed to be teaching on contract forever: just until they find full-time work, right? The full-time professor's job is split between research, teaching, and administrative work. The job is designed to provide such security that an academic can think and speak uncomfortable and unusual, innovative, sometimes irrelevant thoughts without risk of getting fired (academic freedom). The payoff for society is dissent and the chance at innovation.

By hiring professors for one course at a time by contract, the University can save a huge amount of money. Their teaching business gets done more cheaply, bringing in the same amount of revenue, and they don't have to pay for expensive full-time professors. That means there are ever fewer full-time jobs for academics to pin their hopes on, and that society misses out on whatever benefits it might get from dissenters and ideas that come from unexpected directions. But if Universities just think of themselves as businesses, how can they resist the inexorable logic of lowering costs and increasing revenues?

First, they might resist it by adopting a different philosophy of what the University should be doing in society. I would like to see a University (and society) that didn't have so many hierarchies and ranks, so many different grades of pay scale and status and power. They say there are hard times coming. Will those at the top and bottom and middle suffer equally? Should they? Should the hard times be used as an excuse to make an unequal situation more unequal?

It is fair to say academics are a privileged group, and all of us, from students to faculty to the most privileged professors and administrators, live on public and social investment and expense. These options are better than those faced by most people on the planet. People struggle and migrate in the hope that their children might have options like these. With a system that is so hierarchical, with so many tiers, there is always someone worse off, and someone better off. But again, should that be used as an excuse to make an unequal situation more unequal?

The only other way to help Universities resist the logic of business and think of their obligation to education and society is through unions and actions like that of CUPE 3903. In my view, their fight is a fight against the loss of fairness, against more inequality, and for access to education.

Justin Podur
Assistant Professor
Faculty of Environmental Studies
York University