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CUPE 3902 and 3903 members march for better working, living and learning conditions

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Although Mary Jean Hande isn’t currently taking any classes, the third year PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Educstion (OISE) puts in 40 hour work weeks doing field work, writing, applying for grants, presenting at conferences and working on publications.

On top of that, she works three additional jobs, two with CUPE Local 3902 and one with CUPE Local 3907, that add up to another 15 to 20 hours per week.

Click here to see more photos from the rally and beginning of the march.

Yet by the time she’s finished putting in 55 to 60 hours of work per week year-round, she still lives below the poverty line. To make ends meet, she lives with roommates, bikes year-round, goes to clothing swaps, doesn’t spend a lot of money on food and works as often as she can in a store selling artwork.

“There’s no such thing as a holiday when you’re a graduate student,” said Hande. “I’m lucky if I can take a week at Christmas or during the summer but that’s something I have to plan months in advance to make sure nobody’s expecting something from me during that one week period.”

Graduate students often work seven days a week year-round, resulting in an upsurge in stress related illnesses.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “The mental health focus is increasing at universities because people are starting to realize how serious a problem that overwork and anxiety is.” 

And much of that stress is due to chronic underfunding that forces graduate students to work punishing schedules with only a few minutes to mark a paper or an inadequate amount of time to prepare for tutorials and create lectures.

“A lot of people have to work outside their funding packages, working multiple jobs,” said Hande, in an interview prior to Friday’s March to Unite the Fight.

“A number of people picketing are also teaching at other universities to try to make ends meet.”

Hande has been fortunate to obtain a number of grants throughout her post secondary education that have kept her debt free.

“But that’s an anomaly,” she said.

And it’s not as if there are a plethora of academic positions waiting for Hande and her colleagues when they’ve completed their graduate and post graduate studies. Yet in spite of the odds of landing a job in their field, they continue to purse advanced degrees.

“We’re passionate about what we do,” said Hande.

“It takes a long time to recognize how little there is out there for us. So people go in hoping they can get those academic jobs. And then it slowly becomes apparent that many of us will become sessionals or course instructors for a long time, getting paid very little money, fighting over post doctoral fellowships. (For others) they go to graduate school because they can’t find any type of job anywhere else.”

Friday’s historic march from Glendon College of York University to Queen’s Park was organized entirely by the rank and file members of CUPE Locals 3902 and 3903. 

“We have learned that when we strike hard to win, half the battle is building solidarity amongst ourselves,” said Hande, in a pre-march speech to several hundred CUPE 3902 and 3903 members.

“That we’re not easily replaced by the employers’ scabs.”

Hande confessed that the strike has had a huge impact on her.

“It has laid bare the class struggle we are engaged in every day as hyper-exploited workers at the University of Toronto,” she said.

“It has revealed the battlegrounds that is higher education in today’s financialized, imperialist world. It has underscored the critical importance of labour solidarity across universities, the province, the country and the world. It has also overwhelmed me with hope.”

CUPE Local 3902 is no longer on strike after their members voted in favour of binding arbitration on Thursday evening.

“But we stand here in solidarity with 3903 and we know that our fight is far from over,” she said. “This march today isn’t just about 3902 or 3903. It’s about all the people struggling and fighting austerity, including the 40,000 students who are on strike in Quebec.”

Like Hande, Jamie Shilton has managed to remain debt free.

“I’m one of the lucky ones who was given a scholarship at the beginning of the year,” said Shilton, a Masters student in the Department of Political Science at York University. “If I hadn’t got that scholarship, I’d probably be living on about $3,000.”

Instead, his scholarship provides him $13,000 a year for living expenses which he supplements with a part-time job. 

“Even though the university considers research and the graduate assistantship to be a full-time job,” he said. “Which makes it difficult to keep up with readings. Puts a lot of stress around writing papers and doing other coursework.”

As a graduate assistant, Shilton has been helping a York professor with preparations for a book he’s writing. After he’s finished putting in 30 hours a week as a graduate assistant, Shilton works another 13 hours a week at a part-time job to avoid going into debt.

For that reason, Shilton said it’s critical for any new collective agreement to maintain tuition indexation (which CUPE Local 3903 won in 2005) so that when tuition increases, there is a corresponding increase in student funding packages.

“But the university administration unilaterally re-interpreted that last year so that they could raise the tuition for international students by about $7,000,” said Shilton, in a pre-march interview.

“We’re looking for new language in the collective agreement that could prevent that from ever happening again. And ideally, getting a rebate for our union members, my brothers and sisters in the union who are being exploited and gouged to the tune of about $7,000.”

Shilton decided to pursue a Masters degree because he had a genuine interest in the topics being offered at York University. At first, he planned to work toward a PhD but has since changed his mind and intends to go to law school after he’s finished his graduate degree.

After spending every day on the picket lines in solidarity with striking education workers, U of T undergraduate Marko Kobak caught a glimpse of the broader struggle against the working class and precarious labour.

He was also involved with the Student Action Committee that organized the student walkout last week.

The second year Political Science student is carrying $24,000 of student debt. “It’s only going to get worse,” he said.

“Especially for the international students. The administration wants to keep using us as money bags to pay for their pet projects and their own salaries.”

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