03 April 2009

CUPE: Reaping the Harvest of Utter Stupidity

Despite resigning from CUPE Local 3907, the union that nominally represents students who have graduate assistanceships at OISE, they still send me their shit. The latest is a notice for the recent strike vote over the current round of bargaining for the collective agreement under which GAs are paid.
Faced with concessions at the bargaining table, along with a direct attack on the tenets of unionism, and refusal by OISE administration to consider CUPE 3907 proposals, your local was forced to take a strike vote. Today we can say with confidence that our membership has given their bargaining team a clear message to continue our battle for a fair and reasonable collective agreement.

Members voted overwhelmingly to support strike action, if needed. According to Local 3907’s Chair External and CUPE Ontario Vice-President Ajamu Nangwaya, “OISE is attempting to use a financial tool to solve the political problem of university underfunding. It is just outrageous that this venerable educational institute that is a known champion of equity through its educational programmes is shafting its academic workers at the bargaining table with Scrooge-like proposals.”
One thing to say about Ajamu, he has a flair for the dramatic - "Scrooge-like proposals."

To which I say, BAH! Humbug!

The union has framed its own demise, and certainly its own irrelevance in the context of the contemporary, privileged world. Make no mistake: students at OISE are a privileged lot. We are also an intelligent bunch dealing as academics, with academics, in an academic context. We aren't in jobs in which working conditions are generally a problem. And if the relationship between the "workers" and their "bosses" - generally thesis candidates and their supervisors - become problematic, the union certainly isn't in a position to help for what really matters: getting their theses done. So what dynamic has a union mentality actually created?

For those not familiar with the funding structure for thesis students at OISE, a little bit of context: In order to encourage a "culture of completion," and reduce what was a significant drop-out rate among doctoral students and candidates at U of T, the university guaranteed full funding for 5 years for research-oriented, graduate degrees. This could be accomplished either via external scholarship like SSHRC, OGS, or similar, paid work like a TA position, or as a last recourse, funding provided from the general budget of the faculty. Since there are no teaching assistant positions in the Initial Teacher Education program (since, technically, there are no undergraduates at OISE - and yes, there are a very few TEPA and SOLA positions that are effectively TA or full instructor positions in ITE), OISE created graduate assistanceships. These GA positions are research-y sorts of things that enable students to work closely with a professor on a research project, book, or academic centre. The professor in many cases, is the student's supervisor, a member of the student's committee, or doing work closely related to the student's own research. Nominally, it augments the student's education, expands her/his experience, and accomplishes other objectives that would contribute to the CV of a budding future academic. Some faculties, like OISE and Music, for example, decided to split the 5 years and offer 1 year of MA funding, and 4 years of PhD funding.

So that's the setup: funding to cover tuition and a small living stipend in order to facilitate the student's full-time progress through her/his degree, and an opportunity to acquire valuable experience that leads to a future possibly academic job (except, ironically, almost no opportunity for teaching experience, which is weird when you consider this is OISE).

Now enter the union mentality, which says, among other things, people have to be paid for what they do, and do that for which they are paid. Because there is funding, it follows that the funding must obviously be money for doing work, and that work must be the GA. Hence, what began as an academic relationship (and is, in its enactment, very much an academic mentoring relationship) has morphed into a labour-management relationship, courtesy of the union. Systemic funding issues and overall budgetary balancing concerns that affect all constituencies in the institution morph into labour negotiations and so-called bargaining in an environment that has been artificially, and not usefully, constructed as such. Rather than encouraging collaboration, the presence of a union mentality, embodied as CUPE 3907, has taken the Dean's Office off the hook in terms of its moral and ethical obligation to openly and frankly consult with its various constituencies. The presence of a union enables the Dean's Office - "management" - to hide behind an anachronistic but legal process that is, in its purest form, simple a test of power and will.

I have trouble thinking of anything less productive and more stupid to do. On the face, if GAs go on strike, some professors projects will be delayed. No big deal in most cases. Students, on the other hand, lose their livelihood, lose what puts food on their tables (even it it is only ramen or Kraft dinner), potentially even lose the roofs over their collective heads. Thanks a whole bunch, CUPE!

The university's intention is for all thesis students to have funding. The academic intention is for all research students to have research-oriented experience. Why do these two simple concepts have to be entwined in an obsolesced, Industrial Age context? Yes, the university and OISE are coping with the political problem of underfunding - in this Ajamu and I have no disagreement. But, in a UCaPP world, and especially among privileged and intelligent people, this is a time to collaborate to solve the political and economic problems, not engage in destructive power games.

[Technorati tags: | | | | | ]

No comments: