Friday, November 7, 2008

Our poor wages subsidize the university

York University officials claim that unionized Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants, Graduate and Research Assistants put their own interests before those of their students. This is nothing less than outrageous.

Did you ever wonder why, during an in-flight emergency, cabin crews instruct caregivers with children or dependents to put on their own air mask first, before assisting the less capable person? The caregiver must first ensure her or his own safety, because, if she or he does not first act selfishly to survive, others would surely perish.

In the caring industries of education, healthcare, childcare, eldercare, and others, employers at the bargaining table always use the argument that these workers must "prioritize" the "interests" of those who benefit from their labour. Of course, in the day-to-day, we do this all the time. Even from year to year. So we see it first when the system starts to crumble around us - oversized classes, undersized classrooms, the gutting of any semblance of "quality time" for educators to prepare, engage students and ensure their progress.

In such questionable teaching environments at York University, our stressed bodies are the glue that holds up the principle of York's quality education. Under the myth of decent jobs. There comes a point where we have to make a stand, when the cheating has to stop. If educators cannot first care for themselves and the quality of their work, how can we care for others?

Bargaining for living wages, decent working conditions, and equity is our opportunity to stop the erosion of quality higher education at York University. Going on strike is our way of saying we will go the distance to challenge this betrayal of students' education, investment and their future. And we will no longer throw our bodies under the crumbling structure as a diversion. What example does this show our students? What future does this set out for them?

We graduate students and contract faculty cannot adequately care for ourselves because we live in poverty, because our families suffer from living in poverty, because we must work at other jobs to make ends meet, because we are so burdened by debt that there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

When we educators live in poverty, when we are forced to dance for our own survival, we cannot concentrate on serving the interests of our students as best we otherwise could. When educators suffer, our students suffer.

If York University truly cares about the education of undergraduate students, why do they not pay a living wage to all the educators responsible for teaching them?

Teaching , Graduate and Research Assistants are essential to the education of undergrads and the maintenance of the university research system, but the graduate students who perform these jobs cannot survive on their wages. And the university prohibits us from taking other work. Graduate students are expected to subsidize the university by incurring massive personal debt.

The widespread use of highly-qualified, but poorly-paid insecure Contract Faculty has expanded, undercutting the creation of more permanent, tenure-track teaching positions. Why? Because this saves the university money - no benefits costs, no equivalent pay for work done. And lower numbers of full-time permanent workers on the books makes York U look "fiscally sound" to government and other funders.

Can University officials truly claim that paying Contract Faculty less than a living wage and withholding their job security improves the education of undergraduate students? Can they even remotely justify - when their own practices show the opposite - the fiction of promising good paying, secure jobs for graduating Ph.D. students, as if it will offset the crushing poverty they have endured, or the massive debt from ten years of university education that they face?

If the members of CUPE 3903 at York University are to best serve the interests of undergraduate students, we must first ensure we can adequately care for ourselves and our families. It is not our responsibility to subsidize the university system by accepting wages below the poverty line. We union members must ensure we receive at least a living wage for our work, and decent conditions to practice our craft. Only then can we fulfill the promise of accessible, quality education.

by Mike Skinner, with contribution from datejie green