Divide and conquer

For the sake of the tens of thousands of students who are the hostages in the York strike, let’s hope that the government-mandated vote on the university’s offer doesn’t go the way the executive of CUPE 3903 believe it will. It’s possible that there are enough strikers at this point who simply can’t afford to be out anymore and will be willing to go back to work and allow students to get what they, in the end, are paying for, leaving unresolved issues up to the binding arbitration already offered by the school.

But let’s talk, for a moment, about the insanity of putting teaching assistants and sessional instructors in the same local. TAs are graduate students, for the most part, who are paid for their work through operating grant funding earmarked for graduate students. This funding will go up and down depending on the government in question, and the amount is limited, to a large extent, by what the government funds per graduate space. TAs have not yet begun their careers, or perhaps had a career that they left to return to studies. Either way, their time as a TA is limited and will end with their degree, and they are working as a means to fund their education (aka a part-time job) and/or to gain experience in the classroom for future work (aka a paid internship).

Sessional instructors also fall into a number of groups. Best-known among them are PhDs who take on classes while applying for tenure-track positions elsewhere. But, of course, there are also sessionals who are fully employed elsewhere and teach a class or two in their field (particularly at the business school and at the law school). They’re part-time because they don’t want to teach full time. Now, given that universities rely heavily on sessional instructors, often hiring the same ones to teach the same classes year after year, I see the logic in there being a bargaining unit dedicated to these teachers, whose treatment by university administrations has just the degree of neglect that makes joining together a good, even necessary idea.

However, sessionals/adjuncts DO NOT BELONG in the same local as itinerant assistants. They don’t. I’d argue that the assistants don’t belong in any local, since their jobs are often a non-loan form of government or institutional financial aid. That aside, they certainly don’t belong in the same unit as people who are fully in the workforce. Their interests are simply not the same, and the interests of a smaller group can easily overwhelm the interests of a larger one. In this case, ironically, it’s part-time faculty (unit 2), for whom the new contract will have more lasting importance than the others, and whose issues loom large on the agenda, that is most likely to support the university deal: they can’t afford not to. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of them to guarantee a yes.