Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding
The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.
Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle
York's contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.
Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.
Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.
The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.