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What the University of Toronto isn't telling you about the TA strike

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Image: utoronto.ca

Cheryl Regehr, the Vice-President and Provost of the University of Toronto, is telling you a lot about the Teaching Assistant strike.

Cheryl is telling you that teaching assistants and course instructors at the University of Toronto are the highest paid in the country at $43.97 an hour. And if that were the end of it, Cheryl would be telling you the truth. But Cheryl isn't telling you that our contracted work is a convenient fiction. She is telling you that she will decrease the number of required work hours into our contract to 180 from the current 205. She knows full well, although she does not mention it, that we all work far more than the stated hours, and that we will continue to do so no matter what number she writes on our agreement. 

Cheryl is telling you that teaching assistants and course instructors at the University of Toronto have been offered a 4.5 per cent raise on their hourly wages. And if that were the end of it, Cheryl would be telling you the truth. But Cheryl isn't telling you that the promised wage increase will happen incrementally, over the next four years. Cheryl is not telling you that such wage "increases" are not much of an increase at all when factoring inflation rates. Cheryl is also not telling you that in the past few years, she has received annual raises of 9.92 per cent, 5.43 per cent, 4.37 per cent, 6.72 per cent, and 4.77 per cent.

Cheryl is telling you that PhD students received an average level of financial support worth $35,109 last year. But she is not telling you about the financial inequality and inconsistency between departments and faculties. She is not telling you that while graduate students in some faculties might receive a funding package of $17,000 plus full tuition waiver (total funding package = $25,000), graduate students in other faculties (like those in her own Faculty of Social Work) will receive $15,000 and NO tuition waiver. She isn't telling you that after tuition those social works students are actually receiving $7,000. She isn't telling you that the guaranteed minimum funding package shrinks to $10,000 with no tuition waiver by year five.

Cheryl is an excellent administrator. Therefore, she knows full well that unsustainable and piecemeal funding models place students in direct competition for funding with each other. She knows that in competitive climates some students receive a little more than just enough support to fulfill their academic potential, while others are left to juggle through the employment precarity that defines their day-to-day lives, with the hope of having at least one day a week to think about their own research.

Cheryl is telling you that she remains focused on her commitment to her students and their academic success. If that were the case, she would make a good-faith investment in the people who most closely work with those students, and who are in largest part responsible for their learning and their education. Cheryl forgets we are her students too -- the very same students who supported her own success as a researcher, as a professor and as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Work.

How many graduate students laboured over her research projects? How many followed her leadership as a course coordinator? Social workers are compelled to advocate change for the overall benefit of society, the environment, and the global community. Cheryl is not telling you that her membership with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers obligates her to advocate for our rights, not diminish them. 

Cheryl doesn't want you to see the bigger picture. If she did, she would tell you that employment practices promoting insecurity and exploitation in unionized spaces is troubling for everyone. She would make you aware of the link between declining unions and growing income gaps in the country as a whole. She would tell you that post-secondary education is at a crossroads. 70 per cent of future jobs will require post-secondary credentials, and in order to stay competitive more and more students will be forced to seek them out while access to quality education is denied through well-paced rises to tuition in tandem with the slow devolution of public funding.

Professors are teaching less and less. Administrators are being paid more and more. The slack, pedagogical and financial, is being left to us -- those standing in the middle. And so here we stand. We stand together. We stand for education. We stand for justice and equity. We cannot and will not let the income gap in universities grow any larger under our watch. We cannot and will not let working conditions become any more exploitative under our watch. We stand resolute in the face of these growing threats to the quality of your education; threats to your access to education, and your children's education.

We know that Cheryl is a kind and reasonable social worker. Her research and service are evidence of an intelligent mind and a caring heart. We know that her position is not hers alone. We know she is representing the University administration. We know that she and the administration are caught up in larger systems of inequality shaping our society. But we also know she can choose to make ethical choices. She can choose to come to the bargaining table and give us a fair deal as opposed to undermining us in her endless open letters. She can choose to move these discussions to the bargaining table where they belong. 

Cheryl, it is time to stop talking about us and start talking to us.


On behalf of,

Ruth Wilson, PhD Student Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Raluca Bejan, PhD Student, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto Sajedeh Zahraei, PhD, Contract Faculty, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Jessica Carriere, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Marie Jolie Rwigema, PhD Student, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Shely Polack, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Meg Gibson, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto


This letter has been lightly edited and abridged from its original version. 

Image: utoronto.ca

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