Privilege and the Picket line: Why I’m on strike.

I want to write something about the current strike of CUPE3902 Unit 1 workers at the University of Toronto. I am a union member twice over, as a graduate student Course Instructor and as a Teaching Assistant. I teach HIS202: Gender, Race, and Science – an amazing class with many earnest and dedicated students. I’m bothering to add more words to the labyrinth of commentary because, despite some quite reasoned coverage by CBC’s Metro Morning and the Globe and Mail, I am wary of how easily labour strife can lend itself to simplification, into soundbites and Employer versus Union rhetoric.

I never thought I would be on a picket line. I walked to my first picket duty assignment on March 2nd with reluctance and trepidation, asking myself, “Is it possible to be a silent striker?” And then, as I found myself chanting the ear-worms written by our witty union leaders, plying hapless pedestrians with flyers, and joining my colleagues to strategically disrupt on-campus traffic, I was forced to ask myself, if I am doing this (and clearly I am), why does it feel so… bizarre?

I’ve been having a picket line existential crisis.

Which brings me to my point. I have felt disingenuous protesting my/our “poverty” status, when I know full well that I have never known true hunger, that my daughter wants for nothing, and that I spend an obscene amount of small change paying other people to make my coffee for me. I have felt a strange disconnect in playing the “working man”… because I know full well that I live a life of relative comfort, privilege, and safety. A large part of this is the fact that I am fortunate to have a partner who has a well-paid job… with relative job security and an adequate benefits package.

However, were I not so fortunate, I would be facing Year 7 in the PhD program in history with zero assured income in the year to come (all at this point is increasingly scarce and competition-based); an assured > $4,000 tuition bill (this will be the first year my tuition would be halved – each previous year, it has been $8,400); and zero assured TA work within the department, due to my being outside the “funded cohort” (5 years), and that despite my 4 years of TA experience. Any (max. $15,000) income would be the product of contingency and luck.

Am I still a fortunate person? YES. Is the above enough to live on – much less provide me sufficient peace of mind to focus my energies on the high-level intellectual work of producing a great dissertation? (Since that is the point of the University – and the state – funding my research: that I am at work furthering socially valuable knowledge and insight, and that the quality of my study and research => the quality of future undergraduate education => the quality of future citizens.) Not so much.

My first degree was in commerce. I worked in sales. I worked in accounting. I worked in PR. As someone who is aware of financial realities, I CHOSE TO ATTEND THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO to pursue a PhD in History (not only because I loved the field and found an amazing advisor here at UofT) BECAUSE OF THE FIVE-YEAR FUNDING GUARANTEE. I did not want to pursue a career trajectory that would leave me crippled with debt or leeching off family (who, while they are not in need, are certainly not in possession of wads of extra cash to throw my way). I did my best to make an informed and prudent choice, both intellectually and financially.

Do you know how many of those five guaranteed years of funding I have used? ONE. That’s 20% of my funding guarantee. Every other year, I have been fortunate to have successfully competed for external (government) funding for my research. So, 84% of my modest – and extremely appreciated – funding as a graduate student has come not from the University’s budget, but from the federal and provincial governments. (Thanks, tax payers! Be assured, my family and I pay taxes too.) However, those other four years of funding I did not collect from the University will not roll over past my Year 5. My only option will be to apply for small Dissertation Completion Grants and the same external government funding sources I relied on in the past (this too will cap out if I am awarded a scholarship again this coming year).

Sound like I’ve done pretty well by myself. Milked the system for as long as I could? The other side of the coin is that, while our funding reflects an assumption that the PhD program in history should be completed in five years, the reality it that the structure of the program is such that practically NO ONE can complete in this time… particularly if we are teaching at the same time. I know of two people in my seven years here (one of my years was parental leave) who have accomplished this. The more we are lucky enough to work (to earn money), the less time we have to focus on completing our dissertations. What’s more, some students are, like me, “direct admit” students, which means they are accepted directly into the PhD program without a Masters degree, due to their “strong research promise.” That means their PhD program is structured to be ONE YEAR LONGER than the usual. My funding guarantee is not one year longer. It’s still five years. My TA-work entitlement is not one year longer. It’s still four years. The history department’s promotional and informational materials did not mention the reality of its graduate students’ time-to-completion: anecdotally, as I’ve come to find, the average seems to be around 7-8 years.

Current program and funding structures assume that I will make up for this shortfall by being smart (lucky?) enough to win more external funding and “just work harder” to finish my dissertation already. I’m trying. (Right now I need to spend four hours of every day picketing. Haha!) Failure to live up to expectations within this responsibilizing logic (that powerful, neoliberal mode of socializing people to self-regulate and measure themselves against a host of achievement-oriented ideals and moral codes – i.e. there are no wider systemic forces at work, it’s just you not trying hard enough) results in self-loathing and frustration… and, as it turns out, a strike vote. Because striking is the only mechanism we have to make a hard point. Our existing funding guarantees were secured through previous union efforts.

A final word on neoliberalism on campus. The term can sound pretentious, needlessly vague. But it does something vital – it broadly names a move away from ‘welfare state’ practices that, whether we consciously align ourselves with them or not, benefit from and WANT. You know, like a minimum wage. Healthcare. A pension plan. Affordable transit. Regulations on things like day cares, schools, food manufacturers, public utilities. That our children get to go to school and don’t have to work alongside us to pay the bills. Crazy wild socialist stuff like that… they are results of the liberal, welfare state. And of labour mobilization.

I’m not a union firebrand. I’ve never even attended a CUPE meeting. I didn’t vote to go on strike. But I’m striking. You know why? (not just because to cross the picket line would be an egregious insult to my colleagues)

Because capitalism makes whores of us all. *this usage is figurative and not intended to denigrate sex work* Whether we work in a mine or a sweatshop or a university classroom – even, perhaps, if we work in the Provost’s office. We all get sucked into the obligation to sell our skills and our labour for a wage or salary.

The problem? Given these wider conditions, university administrations are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They deploy a liberal (think welfare state) ideal of universal access to higher education to support the relentless increase in university enrolment. Why? They need increasing tuition income – from ever-increasing numbers of admitted undergraduate and graduate students – to stay profitable (and be considered successful at their jobs). And then they turn around and use neoliberal (think shiny, new version of old-fashioned, elite conservatism) rationale to tell their armies of contract and part-time educators that there is no money for said educators to have job security, and that if said educators find the conditions difficult, it’s their own fault for choosing to go to graduate school. Just work harder. Spend less. Move in with your parents. If you can’t handle it, you should re-career.

At stake is the future form of higher education. Is it going to be an expectation of a majority of Canadian citizens? Or will it once again become an elite preserve? We all need to decide. And university administrations need to decide, instead of crushing precariously-employed educators beneath the weight of their hypocrisy.

That’s why you’ll find me and my Starbucks on the picket line.

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