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U of T Can't Fool Striking Students With Talk of Hourly Wages

03/04/2015 12:54 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT
Bernard Weil via Getty Images
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 2: Picketers from CUPE 3092, representing teaching assistants, began their strike in front of gate to campus on King's College Rd. and College Street. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Administrators at the University of Toronto have consistently engaged in spin tactics and deception when explaining the offer they were willing to make the graduate students, now on strike, who largely make up CUPE 3902 Unit 1. These tactics are employed to distract the public from the fact that these crucial employees have guaranteed funding of only $15,000, putting them at 35 per cent below the poverty line.

The administration would like undergraduate students and the public at large to believe that they have made a fair and reasonable offer to U of T's graduate students. To those with little knowledge of the situation, what they say initially sounds plausible. Graduate students, they suggest, have turned down a 4.5 per cent increase in wages over four years, which would raise our hourly wage to $43.97/hr by 2017. If you have not heard these figures, you will: U of T repeats them relentlessly.

Yet a focus on the hourly wage made by graduate students is intentionally deceptive, and obscures the University's unwillingness to budge on the two main concerns of graduate students: the erosion of our basic funding package and the tuition costs of unfunded graduate students who no longer take classes.

Graduate students at U of T are striking over our funding, not wages. Our guaranteed funding -- the level of funding that many of our members live on -- is $15,000, and this hasn't moved since 2007. As a result, the real value of our guaranteed funding has been eroded substantially by inflation (to the tune of approximately $2,000).

Crucially, to receive our guaranteed funding, graduate students are required to work up to 205 hours as a TA. This work constitutes part of our guaranteed funding package. And this is the key to understanding why focusing on our hourly wage is deceptive. Many graduate students do not work more than the required 205 hours: some work in departments that do not have extra TA hours, while many of the rest of us are busy with our own work. While the administration likes to present us as full-time students, in reality most of us are full-time researchers, pursuing our own research, which itself is a full-time job.

So many graduate students just cannot take on substantially more hours: we work full time as researchers and part-time as TAs. Thus, the seemingly high wage rate that the university dangles in front of everyone's eyes is meant to distract the public from the real issue: the guaranteed funding package that most grad students live on puts them well under the poverty line. The offer from the University of Toronto included no increase to the guaranteed funding package. They are happy to see this funding further eroded. We deserve better.

The second issue -- tuition costs for students no longer receiving guaranteed funding -- is even more pernicious. Most graduate students at U of T receive guaranteed funding for four or five years. During this period our tuition is covered. However, once our guaranteed funding has lapsed, U of T is happy to charge us full tuition, despite the fact that we are not taking classes. $8,000 dollars a year is a lot to pay for a library card and a handful of meetings with one's supervisor!

On this issue, as well, the University made no meaningful progress. Their offer -- a pool of funding to be distributed to these students for tuition -- would likely amount to no more than $1,000 per student. And there are no guarantees the university will not raise our tuition, making any current pool of money meaningless. Many universities in North America do not charge unfunded, upper-year PhD students tuition. We don't think U of T should either. A reasonable offer, however, would do much more to address this apparent money grab.

Given the failure of the administration to make any meaningful offers on these issues, the graduate students at U of T rightly decided to go on strike. It is our sincere hope that the university will choose to make us a reasonable offer by restoring the real value of our funding package and sparing unfunded, upper-year students from having to pay so much for tuition. Our bargaining team is at the table, ready to negotiate and end this strike.

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