Voices from the Picket Line

Striking CUPE 3903 Workers, in their own Words

I’m May and I’m a TA at York as well as a course director elsewhere; I am also a mom.

with 6 comments

I am in Ph.D. 4 in Women’s Studies, I am a writing instructor (which is a TA position) at the Writing Centre and I teach three social work courses at another university.  I also have a very part time additional job (approximately 50 hours per year) and have two children, aged five and two.  I am very lucky to have a partner who is immensely supportive, both emotionally and financially, which is the only reason I can even think of blending grad school with parenthood.  Even under these circumstances, however, I am forced to work far more than is really reasonable.  I do this because my childcare expenses are approximately $1700 a month– more than my paycheque from York; because my children are, thank goodness, thriving and therefore eat their own weight in food every week and outgrew their clothes faster than I can buy them.  I love teaching and can say, without conceit, that I am an excellent teacher– but I would never, given the choice, pick a life that includes the equivalent of two full time jobs (three courses is considered full time, and I am a full time Ph.D. student with a TA).

Who asked you to pick this life?

I suppose I could have decided to delay having children, although this seems an unreasonable demand to make of all future academics.  In my case, my work would have been significantly different since, as a result of having children, I am working in the field of feminist mothering studies.  As a feminist, I have to ask what would happen if all the knowledge makers were denied the opportunity to produce both children and knowledge simultaneously.  I think this is a very problematic position politically, one that leads to the total devaluing of caring labour (which, frankly, is the argument that leads us to conclusions such as “who asked you to pick this life?”)

Why job security?

At York, my position is secure since, as part of my Ph.D. admission, I was guaranteed six years of funding as a TA.  As a course director elsewhere, however, I am keenly aware of the precariousness of my position as a contract faculty member.  In order to keep my family afloat, I need to make plans and assume I have a stable income, but this is impossible when I am hired on a contract by contract basis.  On a purely logistic level, I am hired in July to teach in September and am usually given two weeks (unpaid, since I am only paid when I teach) to produce a syllabus.  My daycare asks me to select my days and hours in April, at which point I have no information about when, and how much, I will be teaching.  I know there are many people in my department who have assumed they would get hired for the same two courses, only to abruptly be offered only one.  Finding out in July that your income in September will be half of what you expected is extremely difficult for anyone, but especially frightening for me given my family constraints.

But you only work ten hours a week?

Leaving aside the fact that I work many, many more than ten hours per week for wages, I think some history on the nature of graduate funding is in order.  Historically, graduate students were viewed as apprentice academics and as such were supplied with funding (which was not tied to labour) in order to ensure that they were able to devote time to their studies.  This is still the case in many places, including in most private U.S. universities.  At some point our funding became tied to our work.  Most graduate students I know are not unhappy that we work for our funding– we enjoy teaching and want to have teaching experience in order to become good profs.  Having said that, this move to tie our funding to our teaching made invisible the full time work we were doing as graduate students.  In point of fact, our funding should really be tied to our degrees, NOT to our teaching.  Where generous funding is offered, good work is done.  My colleagues in the U.S. who are able to only work ten hours a week and devote the remainder of their time to their Ph.D. research are producing better work.  This is totally depressing to me.  It is also the reason that Canadian universities are becoming uneasy about employing Canadian-trained academics.  If we are angry about nothing else, we deserve to be angry about the fact that York refuses to allow us circumstances that lead to a quality of education that they themselves consider acceptable.

But I’m a student and no one pays me!!

I know that a lot of undergraduate students probably read the paragraph above and got angry at the idea that any students should have guaranteed funding.  First and foremost, I think it is extremely important to note that CUPE has been very involved in the fight to waive tuition fees for everyone; most of us agree that ALL students should be amply funded.  Having said that, I think there are important differences between undergraduates and career academics who invest 12+ years as students.  If we consider this idea of apprenticeship, we can find parallels with other professions.  Medical residents, for example, are still considered students and are affiliated with universities.  They do not earn the full wage they will receive as full-fledged doctors, but they =do= earn a living wage (around 46K, going up to about 60K in year three, I believe).  Similarly, law clerks are affiliated with universities and, once again, get apprentice wages.  I reiterate:  medical residents and law clerks are considered students– advanced professional students, but students nonetheless, paying tuition and doing work toward their educations.  Their wages reflect the fact that they have invested a great deal of time and work into their professions.  Their incomes, however, also reflect the stage of life that people in time-demanding professions are at while still apprenticing– basically, that the average family physician is close to thirty before leaving residency, with specialists taking much longer.  This is sounding oddly reminiscent of something…

If we expect quality people to become academics, we need to acknowledge the financial (and emotional and physical) demands that long term education require, in exactly the same way as other professions.

Who asked you to be a grad student?

On the picket line, I hear a lot of “If you can’t afford it, then get a job.”  I really wish that students would think through this train of thought and realize that allowing wealth, rather than merit, to select their future professors is a grave error.  This whole strike is a quality of education issue above all else.  It diminishes the degree of every person who leaves York if those of us who are asking for a living wage give up, drop out and allow ourselves to be replaced by rich, dumb folks.

A final note:

A fellow Women’s Studies graduate student brought a sign to the line saying “I love my students”.  And we do– we love our students, we love our work and we want, very badly, to continue to do what we’re best at.  Right now, I, at least, can’t do anything remotely like my best work because I’m exhausted, deeply overworked, stressed and because, unless I work on my dissertation between 3-5 AM, I am actually out of hours of childcare that aren’t promised elsewhere.  This is a shame.  I am not greedy and I am not lazy.  I care deeply about my students and work my ass off to ensure that they get an exceptional academic experience.  But I can’t martyr myself to the university either; I can’t do good work without that work being valued, financially and sincerely, by the university that employs me.  Recently, my five year old son said “Why can’t you just ask your bosses at York University to be nice with you?”  I think this is an excellent question.  Despite the energy you may see on the picket line, none of us WANT to be there– we just want to be granted circumstances that let us do our work and live our lives.  Thus far, this is not what we have been offered.

I could write about this all day, but I’ll stop here.  If you have further questions, please comment and I’ll do my best to reply.

Written by Gavan Watson

November 16, 2008 at 9:28 am

6 Responses

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  1. Exactly! It is insane to expect graduate students to put off starting families. Universities need to be places that provide all their workers at all levels with the basic conditions to live, work and support their families. Also, the point about wealth versus merit is so important. With this kind of insecurity, those talented people who do not have emergency economic back up are effectively excluded from being profs.

    Marion Traub-Werner

    November 16, 2008 at 12:37 pm

  2. I’m a second year undergrad at York and I really appreciate these stories. Before this strike I had no idea of the horrendous conditions that the average grad student has to live in… what a shame. This demonstrates our governments priorities as well as York Universities. I’m embarrassed to tell anyone else that I go to a university that doesn’t care; a university that is willing to question and insult a large group of people that it owes tribute to. For goodness sakes, they’re willing to reject equity wording in the contract as well as whistleblower protection…. Sigh. I realize I’m preaching to the choir, but this just gets me pissed off. Thank you all for standing up for what is right. I can only imagine how hard it must be to absorb the impact of strike pay (For those that aren’t working so many hours somewhere else that they can’t earn strike pay.) It’s inspiring to see a group of people stand up for what’s right.

    Jeff (A _very_ strong CUPE 3903 supporter)


    November 21, 2008 at 2:39 am

  3. […] latest one, I’m May and I’m a TA at York as well as a course director elsewhere; I am also a mom, is a thorough (read: mildly long), deeply articulate take on why this person is walking the […]

  4. By the way, the statement that “law clerks are affiliated with universities and, once again, get apprentice wages” is untrue. Law clerks work full time. They do not take classes. They are not affiliated with any university.

    Also, I don’t really understand the answer to “Who asked you to pick this life?”. Why would not being a full-time student entail not having kids? Most of us who have kids work full-time, because it’s darn expensive, and we’ve made a commitment to them. I hope one day to return to school to do a PhD. But I’ve got three little ones in bed right now, all in various stage from daycares through to Grade 2. Going to study for a doctorate is a luxury that I certainly cannot afford if I want to give them what they need!


    November 30, 2008 at 1:38 am

  5. @Marisa

    Thanks for the comment. I think the issue with children, for me at least, is that even if I wanted to have a child right now, I couldn’t really afford it; or to put it in another light, having kids while being a grad student puts a heavy financial strain on a parent earning what we do.

    So I feel as though I’m in the position of being a grad student or being a parent, not student and parent. It shouldn’t be so dualistic — ideally it would be possible to be both. May is doing both, but at the expense of working extra jobs and getting support from her husband — not always an option for all grad students.


    November 30, 2008 at 10:45 am

  6. Marisa–
    My apologies, you are right about law clerks. I meant articling students rather than law clerks. When lawyers article, they are not affiliated with universities, but they -are- viewed as apprentices for the duration of their articling, and are paid a living wage at that time.
    In terms of your latter argument, I think you may have missed my point– I think it’s both shameful and deeply problematic to view the earning of a Ph.D. as a luxury. A difficult job? Yes. A position which requires some compromises? Yes. But I think that the idea that a Ph.D. is somehow something that only people with privilege in terms of -both- time and money -deserve- to do diminishes our whole world– if our teachers and knowledge makers are exclusively drawn from the elite, who represents the interests of the rest of us? To put it in other terms, if mothers can’t earn doctorates (in particular while putting in our time in the trenches of day to day parenting of small children), then who explores the diversity of mothering practice? who speaks out in favour of women’s caring labour? how does knowledge of motherhood get produced and disseminated if mothers can’t be scholars?
    Finally, I need to say quite clearly here that in doing this degree I am in no way denying my children “what they need”– on the contrary, I am modelling to them precisely the kind of empowered and present parent I would like them to experience, and to become.


    December 2, 2008 at 10:06 am

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