Students and teaching assistants deserve better

September 19, 2019
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo by Hannah Walters-Vida / Editor-In-Chief

By Nathan Todd, Contributor

This year, Ontario has seen significant and damaging cuts to funding for students, student associations, universities and the public employees who keep universities and communities running. 

Many of you may have already felt the impact of these changes — there are already reports of students who are no longer able to attend university because of the elimination of some Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) grants. In addition, the Student Choice Initiative left student and graduate associations scrambling over the summer in attempts to prepare for and minimize the funding cuts that the SCI would bring.

Teaching assistants who are often students are not immune to these negative effects. As students, we are affected by the cuts to OSAP, and as members of either the McMaster Students Union or the Graduate Students Association, we are also members of associations facing considerable budget cuts. On top of this, our ongoing rounds of bargaining with McMaster University for a new employment contract, among other things, threatens to leave us in an even more precarious situation. 

As public employees, we are also now facing Bill 124, a proposed piece of legislation which would mandate that our wage increases do not exceed one per cent, an amount that does not keep up with the cost of inflation. In other words, Bill 124 effectively mandates that we take pay cuts over the next three years.

To put this in a better context, graduate TAs who work 260 hours (which is usually the most a TA can work at Mac) earn less than $11,500 for the year, and undergraduate TAs earn considerably less than that. This is not enough to balance the tuition we need to pay in order to have access to the job in the first place. Given these circumstances, increases to our wages and benefits are always a priority for us in bargaining. Unfortunately, McMaster is not willing to entertain an agreement that wouldn’t conform to Bill 124 should the bill become law. Therefore, meaningful wage increases seem to be a non-starter for the university.

Beyond Bill 124, McMaster is also looking to roll back the amount of hours TAs are entitled to work, making our ability to pay for tuition and keep up with the cost of living even more difficult. 

Wage increases are not our only priority. One of the top priorities we identified before heading into bargaining was paid job-specific and anti-oppressive training for TAs. As it stands, there is no training for TAs. This means that they are learning how to run labs, teach tutorials, mentor and grade on the job! In asking for paid training, we are not asking for anything you wouldn’t expect from working in an office, a high school or a McDonald’s.

McMaster, however, is unsure if paid TA training is feasible. Let me repeat that: A university isn’t sure if it is feasible to teach people how to teach.

As a TA of about five years, I think we do a good job. But running tutorials and grading the assignments that go on to impact the lives of undergraduates is serious, professional work. As TAs, we recognize that. This is why we are asking for professional training to ensure that undergraduates are getting the highest quality teaching possible. Not only would paid training help TAs financially, but it would also benefit us professionally and it would benefit the students who rely on us.

If our bargaining continues to stall, there is a chance you will get messages from McMaster or members in the community about TAs being difficult or that what we are asking for is unreasonable. If this happens, please keep in mind that we are asking for things that any reasonable professional ought to — the ability to keep up with the cost of inflation and the proper training to do our jobs.

Given the attacks that university members have seen through the cuts to OSAP, the Student Choice Initiative and the looming Bill 124, it is more important than ever that we collectively resist attacks on the most vulnerable. McMaster claims it is committed to making a “Brighter World” – TAs and students deserve to be part of it.

Nathan Todd is the President of CUPE 3906


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