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Are TA unions really 'odd and unhelpful'?

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In a recent policy piece, Professor Emmett Macfarlane addresses the notion of Teaching Assistant (TA) unions, his article brought on by the current University of Toronto and York University TA strikes. He's not in favour.

I've always thought the idea of TA unions and the use of strikes was an odd and unhelpful way to structure the graduate student-university relationship.

I reacted a bit on Twitter, and he accused me of misrepresenting his article -- even tossing in that well-worn trollish meme about reading incomprehension. So here, for what they're respectively worth, are his arguments and my counter-arguments. Please try not to fall asleep.

1) Let's clear the ground, first off. Macfarlane is not arguing that TA's don’t have the right to organize and to strike. He's also in favour, of course, of decent treatment by supervisors regarding work hours: he opposes unpaid hours, but claims that TA strikes are rarely about transparency in that respect.

2) He is concerned about what he calls a "problematic conflation of 'student' and 'employee.'" To claim that $15,000 a year is "below the poverty line" (a TA union-side argument) is, says Macfarlane, to treat graduate student TAs as full-time employees rather than full-time students with some part-time employment. He concedes that "in their capacity as TAs, graduate students are employees." But then, in his own words, "conceiving of the relationship with their academic supervisors or the university at-large as 'employees' is a complete misrepresentation of why they're even there."

3) As noted, Macfarlane objects to the union’s portrayal of their TA salaries as below the poverty line. Those salaries are only a part of the student’s overall income, he says, and besides, it's only for ten hours of work a week. He then goes on to say, "the attempt to frame 'graduate students' as having an employer-employee relationship is part of an effort to make this seem less bizarre."

4) He then deflates the union-side demands, in all of their diversity, into more funding for grads to avoid student debt. He agrees that the latter is a legitimate quest, but he claims that arguing for it "straightforwardly" would entail arguing for it outside the union context. This is a policy issue, he concludes, not a labour relations issue. The latter frame transforms our notion of graduate students, who now appear as "primarily employees or trainees."

The reader will forgive me for quoting at such length, but since Macfarlane accused me of misrepresentation, I thought it best. My response below matches his numbered points, above.

1) The U of T strike, at least, is very much about hours, as well as wages and benefits. Despite Macfarlane's illusory notion of the good supervisor, the TA complaint about unpaid hours worked is almost universal. That's the backdrop for an explicit bone of contention in the current labour dispute: on-the-books hours. Toronto is offering a wage increase—but that would be offset by a cap on the TAs' working hours. Official hours, that is: the duties will remain exactly the same, meaning that many more unofficial (unpaid) hours will have to be worked.

2) This point remains somewhat opaque, at least to me. Students can also be employees: in fact, Macfarlane explicitly concedes that this is the case. When they are teaching, marking, unionizing and striking, they’re employees—part-time employees, to be sure, but so what? Part-time employees get unionized elsewhere, and when or if there’s a strike they go out with their full-time brothers and sisters. (I know of one bargaining unit in which every member was part-time: strike pay turned out to be more than their weekly wage.)

Macfarlane appears to be setting up a strawman argument here. What makes him imagine that TAs see themselves as "employees" as they pursue their own grad courses or as they are writing their theses or taking part in student life generally? TAs consider themselves as "employees" only when they are fulfilling the role of employees, a role that involves not only their duties, but participation in their union.

3) The union argument about the "poverty line" may seem a little problematic at first. But I doubt that it's an attempt on the part of the TAs to represent themselves as full-time employees, or to think of themselves that way. At worst, it might be seen as apples and oranges.

Yet, given the costs of tuition, books, residence and so on, and the huge and rising weight of student debt, the notion is not without merit. After all, TA employment is part-time, but the university-related costs they incur are the same as though they were full-time employees. And when one takes the unofficial worked hours into account, the hourly rate drops significantly.

Further, while they are choosing to be students, as others choose to be house-spouses, and thus are voluntarily removing themselves to a greater or lesser degree from the labour market, we need to take a somewhat wider view of things. The labour that they perform as TAs is waged. The labour that they perform as students isn't necessarily paid (although it can be to some degree, e.g., by scholarships and bursaries), but it remains socially necessary labour all the same, and a social investment in the future. Within that larger picture, TA students are indeed full-time employees—working for two employers, the university and society.

In any case, a salary rise is obviously a legitimate union demand, and the graduate students collectively making it are doing so, not as students, but as university employees. In that role they obviously do have an employee-employer relationship with their university. There's nothing remotely "bizarre" about that.

4) Why should not TA students, wishing to avoid massive student debt, use what tools they have at their disposal (collective bargaining and the right to strike) to do just that? Perhaps this issue does need to be taken outside the employer-employee context to be fully resolved for TAs—and indeed all other students—but at present provincial governments are unwilling to lighten the load. Maybe this will someday be a public policy issue that these governments are prepared to address substantively, but in the meantime, what are students to do?

For TAs, coping with their debt remains first and foremost a labour relations issue. The students are hardly to blame for that: it’s the system in which they find themselves. And, in closing, note that Macfarlane doesn't actually suggest a concrete alternative.

[Disclosure: I've been a TA many times over, including relatively recently.]

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