Why Unions are Important in Universities


Description:  A grey cat with golden eyes has a brown rat between their pays while they’re biting through the rat’s neck. The rat is clearly dead and the cat is sitting on grey painted wood with what looks like snow in the background.

Taken from: http://asianetindia.com/natural-ways-to-kill-rats/ ]

A few weeks ago, I received an email York University with a response to my PhD application. I was terrified when I saw the notification, but was at work. I left the email unread until I arrived back home so regardless of the results, it wouldn’t impact my job. …Much. I spent the rest of my shift low key anxious and Facebook messaging my kyn (the word I chose to describe chosen family) with plans to look at the email as a household.

By the time I was in the door and greeting my kyn, my anxiety spiked. But I was surrounded by people who’d be there for me regardless of the results of the email. Hiding in one person’s shoulder, the other read the email for me and told me the results.

I got into a PhD program! This was such a huge relief for me. Finally! My life can begin! I’ll be able to fix up my body. I’ll be able to fix up my brain. I’ll be able to have nice things and not feel like a burden on my kyn as the poorest one in the house! (Regardless of how much they’d say otherwise, the reality of making approximately $800 a month is real…)

Getting into a PhD program at York has been my goal for the past few years. I live in a household of PhD candidates. We all met in the same MA program (in various stages of completing our degrees) and eventually became a household. Being marginalized in multiple ways hasn’t made it easy for me to get employment regardless of how much experience I have. But for some reason, my abilities are recognized most often in academia. It’s my best chance at doing what I want and making enough to pay the bills. And specifically at York, I would have access to things that no other university could provide.

And then I received my funding package. $22,000 a year which was higher than the (rounded up) $10,000 a year. (Keep in mind, this is still below a living wage). But then at the very bottom of the page, it mentioned that I was going to be offered either a Fellowship, TA, GA, or RA position. And my world crashed down upon my ears.

For those who aren’t aware, PhD students are generally given TAships when they enter a program at York. Both of my kyn’s funding packages stated that they would have a TAship. Period. It was guarenteed. For me, this is not the case. Out of the positions that I could receive, only being a TA or GA means being part of the union.

Now why does being part of the union matter so much to me?

It’s because I did my MA without union support. That was the biggest mistake I got talked into that I’ve made in my academic life.

I entered my MA confident and excited. I was nurtured in my undergrad by profs who found my work provocative and I blossomed in a degree that actually recognized my weird brain as something brilliant. I received a SSHRC scholarship entering my MA which for anyone who knows what that is, understands why this is such a big deal. It was not only a prestigeous scholarship, but getting one going into a Masters Degree is uncommon. And of course, it meant that I received a nice chunk of money.

When I met with my graduate program director, some of the money they initially offered me was clawed back (sucks) because I got SSHRC. Fine. But then they offered me a Fellowship. They would give me the money I was due to work for as a scholarship so I could focus on my studies. I took it not knowing better.

For the first year of my degree, things were alright. I had a lot of cash flow, I didn’t have a lot of needs, and I could throw money at issues that came up. Like when I was harassed out of my living situation a few months into my MA, I was able to get emergency housing at York and move into Assiniboine. I had to get my wisdom tooth removed and I could pay for that. I was able to get a new computer since the laptop that took me through my entire undergrad finally died. But after that first year, it became harder.

During my degree, my first supervisor took my vision, the project that had won me a SSHRC scholarship, and told me I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t be able to finish it in a timely manner and I had never taken a class on coding. I couldn’t do research. Instead, I should focus on doing a literature review. And the thing is, I did a qualitative and quantitative research study in high school under the guidance of an MSW for my co-op placement at the Well, Hamilton’s former queer and trans community resource. This study that I did as a high school student helped to change policy. After I told this story to a bunch of people in the program. They independently of each other came to the conclusion that my original supervisor was really saying I was too disabled.

I became disillusioned with what happened to me. I couldn’t finish my school work and threw myself into other parts of my life. Namely, my transition, community work, and trying to find work. I was lucky enough to have such a buffer of scholarship money, but it would have been a lot easier to survive if I had employment and benefits. When I tried to find work at York, I couldn’t become a TA or a GA since I hadn’t been given a job when I entered the program. And I didn’t have the nepotistic connections to find employment from a prof. I had no access to benefits. And it was the lack of benefits that chipped away at all the money that I was given from the outset. I was transitioning and that came with more costs. I was also dealing with the trauma of being sexually exploited on campus by another student. I also tasted the bitterness of rejection trying to find work. I learned what discrimination felt like when trying to get employment. At one point, I was on OW juggling my new MA final project I was working on, trying to find regular work, and doing the side jobs and contracts I managed to patch together to stay afloat. (You try living on $650 a month and having money clawed back whenever you made money). I ended up taking 4-5 years to finish the program. Just as long if not longere than it did to finish my BA because I was busy just trying to keep afloat.

In part, I was younger and inexperienced. Looking back with the things I know now, I could have done a lot better at saving money, but hindsight is 20/20. The point is, if I had been given a job to work instead of a Fellowship, I could have survived a lot better. I wouldn’t have had to expend so much energy trying to find work just so I could pay the bills (including tuition). I could have had support transitioning from the only university in Canada (to my knowledge) that has a fund that can cover transition costs. I could have accessed a therapist to deal with the physical and sexual trauma instead of having to wait on the 2 years+ wait list for publically funded sexual assault services.  (I never received a call back).

The prospect of doing a PhD program at York is exciting. I’m passionate about my research. But I also want to thrive. Living in a household of PhD students, I’ve watched them work. Classes are even more demanding than an MA (which was a huge spike up from undergrad). Being a TA is more than just the 10 paid hours a week. It’s preparing lessons, answering emails from harried students, doing emotional labour (often at 1am and over email), marking and giving feedback on papers, doing extra work to ensure students have a clear understanding of what the assignment entails, and supporting students with various needs in the class.

(Think about the work a TA does when you’re sick and need to miss class, or you have family or parenting responsibilities. Or someone dies and you have to fly halfway around the world for the funeral. Or you have an undiagnosed disability and need support getting it recognized).

This is the kind of work I want to be doing. I’ve done a lot workshops for $50 to service providers on how to not be awful to marginalized people. (They could start by paying me more…) It’d be nice to actually be paid enough to live off of.

I started this blog in hopes to gain some recognition for who I was. I was at a point in my life when I was on OW, feeling like a sack of useless shit because I couldn’t get paid work, and constantly asked to provide my expertise for free or “honorarium”. I just want to be able to survive without the constant stress of what’ll happen when I have extra bills to pay. Or just going without things because I can’t afford them (like dental, therapy, vision, some transition stuff).

If I go to meet the graduate director for my soon-to-be PhD program and am offered a Fellowship, I’d be devastated. $22,000 would be a vast improvement on what I make now, but at what cost? I’d be able to afford more, yes, but I wouldn’t have access to a lot of benefits. I would have to pay for all conferences out of pocket. Any emergencies that arise (which will happen, I had two in my MA) would have to come out of pocket. I’d also not have any career prospects. I’d like to be a community researcher/course instructor. Like in my Masters, I wouldn’t have any way to get employment through the university. If I wanted employment, I’d have to look elsewhere and as I said before, I don’t have the nepotistic connections to be given opportunities and I don’t have the privilege to just interview for most jobs and get them even if I’m better qualified for the position than the person they do select.

I’ve lived through 3 strikes at York now. My first year at university was during the 3 month strike of 08-09. I’ve watched as the union lost ground in many respects. I have friends in other sectors talk about their experiences working both inside and outside of a union. While those who are in the union get a lot of benefits and support, those outside the union don’t. And especially after the last strike, the union last 800 jobs almost decimating unit 3 (GA’s). This means 800 students who have meagre benefits being without union support.

My grandpa likes to tell stories about his time working for this factory in the small town he and my dad grew up in. He started from the bottom and worked his way into upper management. He was part of the group that worked to get a union into the factory. And when he got into management, he had to work with the union and undergo bargaining. He instilled in everyone in the family an importance of having unions. As management, he valued his workers. He wanted to make sure his workers were able to support their families and do their work to the best of their abilities. It didn’t mean that he cowed down to every request the union made or allowed people to get away with sub-par work, but he understood the importance of things such as workplace safety, good pay, and benefits.

I read through the the offers that were brought to the bargaining table since the decision made is going to impact me next year. About half of the requests were financial and I know the union is asking for more than what they expect. It’s part of the bargaining process. But the other half were non-financial requests such as stronger wording to ensure job safety. The way I’ve seen the strike going, it’s been really dirty. Classes are still going and thus there’s been a lot more violence on the lines. So much hostility is arising from undergrads who still have to attend classes because otherwise, they won’t be able to pass. It’s a sticky, unpleasant situation all around designed to try and wear out the union and build resentment against them.

The university hasn’t been budging on a lot of things that would ensure better working conditions and don’t cost much money. Or things that make sense like having childcare at Markham and Glendon campuses. Or if York ever forgets to pay its employees like it did last year, they would be fined 10% for each month not paid the same way students are if they don’t pay their tuition on time.

There’s been a definite trend towards trying to weaken the union. Most of the GA’s were removed last strike. This strike, they’re trying to get rid of contract faculty by offering considerably more course director jobs to PhD students (at the expense of contract faculty).

I fear for how things are going. It reeks of union busting. And without a union in place, what’s stopping the not just the York administration, but every other university or college’s administration from cutting every corner they can to save money at the expense of our survival? Who’s going to watch the watchers? If I were in the union right now, I’d be voting NO to the ratification vote coming up. With how things are worded right now, there’s a distinct possibility that I won’t be able to accept my PhD offer. If I can’t pay for the things I need to survive this monumental degree, how will I finish it in a timely manner?


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