Voices from the Picket Line

Striking CUPE 3903 Workers, in their own Words

Hi. I’m Gavan. I’m a TA, course director and PhD student at York.

with 3 comments

Let me take a quick moment to introduce myself: my name is Gavan Watson and I am a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) at York University. This is my seventh year at York; for my first two I was a master’s student in FES and now I’m in year five of the PhD program. When I’m not on-campus walking the picket line, I’m busy collecting data (interviewing people) for my dissertation. I hope to defend my work sometime mid-2009. If I wasn’t on strike, I would be teaching in my faculty this semester: I am the course director for a first year course exploring the natural history of Toronto, which makes me a member of Unit 1.

I am the one responsible for starting the blog, in part because I’ve been disappointed in the way that our demands have been represented in the mainstream media and the paucity of individual voices from the union to explain why what we’re asking for is so important to us. So, rather than getting caught up rhetoric about 30% wage increases (which, just to clarify was a demand at one point in time, but has been off the table for weeks), I want to explain what it is like to be a graduate student who earned $16 353 in 2007 (I just looked that up on my pay stub).

My financial life

As far as day-to-day expenses are concerned, I have little to complain about. I live downtown and share an apartment with my partner who is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. Sharing my expenses with her is key to my ability to afford being a graduate student: I would be in significant financial trouble if I had to do this all on my own. I don’t live a lavish lifestyle: we have high-speed internet, but don’t have cable. We eat out two-three times a week, but will go for the cheaper lunch specials rather than dinner. My partner and I got a dog during my PhD, so we spend money on dog food and the odd toy for him. I’ll buy the odd Xbox 360 game for amusement.

I can cover my day-to-day expenses with the support York University provides me. Right now, my monthly fixed expenses clock in around $1200. A typical pay-cheque in the fall and winter is $1500. So, I have $300 discretionary income each month. In the summer, I get less a month–last August my cheque was $1070 (part of the pay package is you get less in the summer while you’re not in a classroom). During these months, I earn less than what I owe and so have to find that money elsewhere. In September, January and May I owe York tuition. Last September’s amount was $1823; part of a previous CUPE 3903 settlement means that my tuition is indexed, so I also get $590 credited to my account (to take account of the difference). That means that I owe about $3700 each year in tuition.

Now, what I have to do to get this money is part of the reason why I’m walking the picket line. I do have student loans, but I’ve also worked throughout my time as a graduate student. Most recently, I was the director of an outdoor centre last spring & late summer. I work outside the university to try and earn the $3700 to pay for the following 12 months of school fees. Taking this extra work, however, is not allowed as a condition of funding from York University. I have to do it anyway.

The “get a job” argument

Part of what’s frustrating with what people have been saying about our position is that if graduate students have a problem with what we’re being paid, we should get a job to make up the difference. That is fine in theory, and in practise it is what I’ve tried to do. There is little doubt that working has meant that I’ve taken longer than I would had I not been working–the irony here is that because I work, I need take more time to pay my way through grad school, meaning that I have to find more money to pay tuition. It’s something of a vicious circle.

Working, in some cases, is not always possible. During September-April, I feel like my number one job is being a graduate student: moving through the PhD process, writing my own work, travelling and presenting at conferences and being a part of my faculty’s community (sitting on committees, going to meetings). These are all “unpaid” parts of my job as a graduate student, in addition to my 10 hours a week as a TA or course director. Teaching and my unpaid graduate work take up my time. And I would be sacrificing the quality of my teaching or research to also work at the same time–something I have refused to do thus far. So extra work only works in certain situations at certain times.

The “get a loan” argument

Another position that people have regarding our wage is the suggestion we should be getting loans to cover the difference. In fact, I have had to take out student loans while a graduate student. I was lucky because I before returning to do my Master’s degree, I worked full-time for two years. Over that span, I managed to save enough to pay for the expenses associated with that degree. Since I’ve been a PhD student, I have had to borrow to cover expenses. And, while I have student debt, by working, I’ve managed to keep it to (in my mind) a manageable level. I’m especially luck, though.

The whole student debt argument goes that this kind of debt is good because you’re “investing in yourself.” I think that many think that once you have a PhD, your move to a secure tenure-track position is a foregone conclusion. If that were the case, then accruing significant student debt could be seen as a good investment. The reality is somewhat different: as I approach the end of my PhD, I have to come to terms with the reality that there might not be a tenure track job available for me when I graduate. This is the case for a number of reasons–two factors combining at the moment are more students in graduate programs and less tenure-track hirings (and, coincidently, more contract faculty jobs–right where Unit 2’s concerns come in).

Why wages are important

My experiences as a graduate student are just that–mine. I’ve worked hard to move to the end of my PhD and I’ve appreciated the financial support that the University offers. At current funding levels, I have had to take extra work and go into debt to make my education happen. And this happens at the expense of my speed though my program and the quality of my own work.

Wages are an important issue not because I’m some academic loafer who want to live a lavish lifestyle while working “just” 10 hours, rather getting paid a wage that lets me focus on my teaching and research responsibilities allows me to do both, better. And this is where all of this should matter to undergrads: if your teaching assistants need to take jobs to pay their bills, then they’ll be doing less of what you’re coming to that lecture, lab or seminar for. The quality of your own education suffers as well.

Written by Gavan Watson

November 13, 2008 at 3:43 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hi,

    Thanks for the calm and rational dialogue on this debate. It would be super if we could get this conversation going with as many undergraduate students as possible.


    Heather Davies

    November 19, 2008 at 2:54 pm

  2. […] The founder of the blog has his own post entitled, Hi. I’m Gavan. I’m a TA, course director and PhD student at York. […]

  3. Thank you for telling yor story.
    I am an undergrad at York, and have been trying to listen to voices on both sides of this dispute. Your blog places a more human face upon the demands of the union. It is a breath of fresh air! Much more constrctive than the pointless diatribe that is hurled at me through other ‘social networking sites’. I hope this dispute is resolved sooner, rather than later. I would like to go back to class, as I am sure graduate students are eager to continue their studies.


    December 16, 2008 at 11:13 pm

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