For one month Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto and York University in Toronto were on strike in the hopes of gaining better wages, fairer hours, more robust tuition assistance, and improved benefits. About two weeks ago, CUPE 3902, the union that represents the striking Ph.D and Master’s students at the University of Toronto, rejected a potential agreement with the universities because the proposed deal does not, in the words of CUPE 3902 spokesman Craig Smith, “achieve the gains that are necessary for long-term financial security as student workers.” This past week, however, the strike officially ended with the University of Toronto and CUPE 3902 agreeing to go to binding arbitration to end the labor dispute.
The striking students in Toronto garnered little international attention, and, unless you read the Canadian press (as I sometimes do), you probably did not hear about the strikes at the most prestigious university in Canada. However, the striking members of CUPE 3902 (there are 6,000 employees represented by the union) were a shining example of the power of unions in an age where once-mighty unions are under siege.
This is especially true when it comes to unions that represent educators in the United States. With flawed documentaries like Waiting for Superman pointing the finger at those pesky teachers’ unions for keeping our low-income children stuck in failing schools, and with governors across the country (like potential presidential hopeful Scott Walker) proudly taking their big stick to unions, unions are under attack in ways never before seen. According to USA Today, fewer than 50% of teachers are currently represented by unions, and the trend-line is pointed down. With the retirement of baby-boomer era teachers and an increase in charter schools, unionization is in a downward spiral.
What’s even more alarming, however, is the mere 23% of college/university level educators who are represented by unions. Unlike in Canada where graduate students and adjuncts are represented by unions, in the United States the vast majority of graduate students and adjuncts are unrepresented, making them the most vulnerable among educators when it comes to exploitation and unjust wages.
70% of all educators at colleges and universities in the United States are adjuncts who receive no healthcare benefits, cannot file for unemployment, and often teach 3 or more courses a semester just to live above the poverty line. They are the underappreciated educators who teach the introductory classes that help to shape and sharpen the minds of freshmen and sophomores at prominent colleges and universities. Yet, they are among the most vulnerable educators; they are hired and fired based upon university budgets and have no employment security despite the fact that universities are moving away from hiring full-time tenure-track professors and becoming reliant upon adjuncts to teach undergraduates.
Nevertheless, these adjuncts are not alone. Teaching assistants are the other group that is enlisted to teach introductory courses for little pay and minimal-to-no benefits. Or, in many cases, the professor plays the role of the great scholar while the TA plays the role of servant—grading papers, answering emails, dealing with the students. At some of the larger public universities, TAs teach as much as 60% of the introductory classes, while earning stipends that put them well below the poverty line. Some have healthcare benefits, but others do not. When benefits get slashed for graduate students, like for graduate students at the Catholic University of America who lost healthcare coverage for dependents—healthcare for which they had to pay out of pocket—there is no recourse.
Extending far beyond the scope of secular and public schools, there are egregious un-Catholic efforts of Catholic universities and colleges to prevent the unionization of teaching assistants and adjuncts at their schools. Many Catholic schools like Duquesne University, Manhattan College, and Saint Xavier University have openly fought against unionization of adjuncts, arguing for religious protections to National Labor Relations Board rules. Despite clear Catholic teaching in support of unions and the right to unionize, Catholic universities across the country are combatting efforts of adjuncts and graduate students to unionize.
Workers have a right to unionize and to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. This is what the Catholic Church teaches. US Catholic universities and Catholic students need to stand up for the rights of their educators. We only need to look north to see students in Toronto on the front-lines of this fight for bettering the conditions of our educators. Their example is one that we can emulate.