TAs, public goods, and what we talk about when we talk about strikes

Strikes in the public sector have always had a different political economy than those in the private sector. Sure, the people who nurture a parochial distaste for the labour movement will always get angry about both, but the most acidic bile is often reserved for the former. The TA strike now entering its third day at my alma matter (and its companion strike at York U, which also involves sessional lecturers) has been no exception.

In their opening salvos at CUPE 3902, Unit I the administration has already trotted out nearly the full menu of anti-union demagogy familiar to anyone who’s ever followed or participated in a strike, especially in the public sector. In a rather terse Huffington Post column published yesterday, for example, U of T Provost Cheryl Regehr repeated the oft deployed and utterly chimerical figure of TAs’ generous hourly wage in defence of the university’s proposed deal. The administration has also produced a rather comically-titled “fact sheet” (which reproduces the same bogus hourly wage figure) and declared its “disappointment” in the CUPE 3902 membership’s decision to reject an offer that would keep them earning a sum well below the poverty line (TAs have their hours capped, meaning their take home pay is around 15K/year).

At first glance, these manoeuvres look like pure brinksmanship. Strikes are essentially controlled warfare between employers and their workforce and winning the public relations battle is crucial for both sides. But there’s more to it than that. Behind the university administration’s political posturing, and also behind CUPE’s attempts to secure a better deal for its membership, there are two very different conceptions of what the university is, what it’s for, and who it belongs to.

The nature of the antipathy provoked by strikes like the ones currently underway at York and U of T reveals a lot about what’s really at stake. What we talk about when we talk about strikes, particularly by workers in the public sector (TAs, civil servants, teachers, firefighters, garbage workers, or the janitors who clean up for TAs, civil servants…) is more than just the particular character of an individual strike action. Anti-union rhetoric has a storied history but certain motifs remain immortal, and they’re pretty revealing. They include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Devaluing the labour performed by workers: If TAs or civil servants are on strike, we hear frequent intonations that they belong to a privileged group doing privileged work which lacks broader social value. If the strike involves members of a blue collar profession (say, garbage workers) we hear something like the opposite – that the workers are performing basic labour which also doesn’t constitute “real work” (“They should have gone to university!”).
  • Representing existing compensation schemes as generous and charitable: Workers are privileged to be working at all, and we pay them better than [somewhere which pays even less well]. This is the paternalistic face of corporate capitalism.
  • Contrasting the material and/or social wellbeing of workers to others who are worse off: This talking point runs something like this – “Someone always has it worse off than you, so why are you complaining?”. Its unfortunate potency comes from its ability to divide and conquer workers in the the middle and working class, thus undermining their ability to organize.

Let’s take a look at a few of these in relation to the strike action undertaken by the members of CUPE 3902. The U of T admin’s “fact sheet” (scare quotes mine) details the various “support” (scare quotes mine again, sorry!) graduate students receive from the university in the form of scholarships and the like. These it distinguishes from the pay they receive for teaching part-time, which it also frames as an extension of the university’s generosity, rather than as compensation for labour upon which the university’s daily functioning absolutely depends. TAships are not “support”: they’re a mandatory component of many funding packages and they represent a sizeable share of the teaching that goes on at the university. Employers who compensate their workforce aren’t acting charitably, they’re paying for labour without which their factories, offices, or classrooms would remain empty and useless.

Moreover, the hourly wage figure offered (and disgracefully repeated by Provost Regehr in her Huffington Post column) and put up against lower figures at other schools not only completely misses the point, but ignores the fact that the cost of living in Toronto is much higher than in other cities. The same sheet conveniently neglects to mention that graduate students are expected to conduct research on a full-time basis or that this research is one of the primary reasons that the university exists in the first place. This omission tells us something else about the ideology underlying the administration’s position, as it implicitly demarcates between the teaching work conducted by TAs (which it nevertheless devalues as a form of “support”) and their research. The implication is clear: graduate research isn’t real work.

This gets at the crux of what’s really behind the administration’s steadfast resistance to giving graduate students a living wage, which is the belief that a university is primarily a vocational institution rather than a public enterprise. In this formulation, graduate students are not partners in the public production and dissemination of knowledge but simply atomized individuals who have chosen to “invest” in a degree. The university’s primary purpose is not to be a public good, but rather to train a workforce in a manner tailored to needs of the private sector. And if your research happens to be about something no prospective shareholder will be interested in, too bad.

This model, unfortunately, is currently winning. Scroll through the biographies of non-student or faculty representatives on the U of T Governing Council and you’ll find a veritable phalanx of non-elected corporate executives who have more say over the institution’s operation than the faculty whose research it enables or the students it ostensibly exists to empower and serve. By rejecting a deal founded upon the pernicious logic outlined above, members of CUPE 3902 have not only demanded fair wages and working conditions but, both implicitly and explicitly, challenged the very model of a university which refuses to provide either.