Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike. The union representing the TAs apparently also represents other non-tenured (sessional) course instructors.

As someone who has been a graduate student and TA and has supervised TAs (at three different universities), 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.

Before I explain, a number of caveats are in order:

1) Nothing in my argument should be construed as suggesting that Teaching Assistants don’t have the right to form a union or to strike. My argument is mostly about what I think makes for good policy or way of conceiving how graduate students relate to a university.

2) Not every university offers the same pay, benefits and working conditions. The very role of TAs may function differently in different disciplines (i.e. the sciences and engineering versus the social sciences and humanities). I want to premise my argument on an assumption that doesn’t always hold in practice: that there is transparency in the expectations and number of hours TAs are expected to work, and that their hourly salary is based on a mutual understanding of those expectations between TAs and their supervisor. Any supervisor who expects (or even allows) their TAs to work more hours than allotted and paid for is a bad supervisor, in my view. But TA strikes are rarely about transparency, as they usually focus on salary and benefits, etc. The U of T strike, according to the union, is about “wages, healthcare benefits, unclear hiring practices and a lack of job security.”

3) I will focus on the “typical” TA: a full-time graduate student who receives some base funding and whose TAship supplements their funding and usually requires 10 hours of work per week. By no means does my argument apply to anyone working as a course instructor/sessional and who is not a full-time student.

So why do I think unionization and strikes are unhelpful when applies to TAs? Fundamentally, it leads to a problematic conflation of “student” and “employee.” For example, in the story linked above, it states that “The union says the average take-home pay for graduate students, after tuition is deducted, is about $15,000 a year, well below the poverty line.” This treats graduate students as if they are full-time employees of the university rather than full-time students with part-time employment that supplements their funding.

To be clear, in their capacity as TAs, graduate students are employees, and their supervision and expectations should operate in that capacity. At the universities I’ve worked at, supervisors set out the hours covering all teaching-related tasks with the TAs (in my department at Waterloo, this is filled out on a form signed by TA and supervisor): in-class time, prep work, grading, office hours, etc. They are explicitly told to manage their hours and that they should not go over the total. But outside of those 120-140 hours per term, graduate students are students. 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.

The union’s statement also conflates graduate student funding packages – the general amount of support a university offers so that students can conduct their studies with some degree of financial support – with their pay for employment. The TAs at U of T are paid a rather eye-popping sum of $42.05/hour for their work; the employment income or “pay” accounts for only part of their overall income. Outside of the university context, no one would raise hackles that anyone working 10 hours per week had a salary “below the poverty line,” and the attempt to frame “graduate students” as having an employer-employee relationship is part of an effort to make this seem less bizarre.

What advocates appear to want is simply higher graduate student funding. In their view, graduate students should have their living expenses covered by the institution so that they do not have to incur debt to attain their degrees. I think this is a legitimate argument, however, to argue for this in a straightforward way would mean arguing for it outside of the labour relations – and therefore outside of the union – context.

Rather than lobbying for what is essentially a policy issue, the key problem is transformed – falsely, in my view – into a labour relations issue. And in doing so, it transforms our conception of graduate students from primarily students to primarily employees or trainees. I don’t know if this might actually hold in the sciences, where much of graduate work sounds like endless lab work on their supervisor’s projects, but it certainly doesn’t hold in the social sciences and humanities, where graduate work remains principally about education.