With a TA strike vote happening this week, Western's administration sent out an email yesterday assuring students that the term will carry on as scheduled. The university said it hopes to reach a settlement without a strike. However, the TA union and the graduate students society are calling the message misleading.
Yesterday morning, Western University's Provost Janice Deakin emailed undergraduate students about the graduate teaching assistants (GTA) upcoming strike vote. TA strike or not, the email stated students will finish the term, with course grading, exams and convocation taking place as usual.
The university has been in negotiations with the union that represents 2,000 TAs, Public Service Alliance of Canada Local 610, since the fall. With negotiations at an impasse, the union is holding a strike mandate vote this week until Thursday. A strike mandate — a majority vote in favour of strike — authorizes the union to initiate a strike. However, it does not guarantee TAs will hit the picket line; rather, it indicates the members are ready to do so if necessary.
Deakin's email said the university remains hopeful it can reach a settlement with PSAC Local 610 and achieve a contract that is "mutually agreeable and fiscally responsible." The provost stated teaching assistants currently receive $43.61 an hour for up to 140 hours per term — $2.77 more per hour than other Ontario GTAs on average.
"Only four universities, three of them in Toronto, provide higher rates to their GTAs," Deakin wrote. "Our offer on the table is also in line with contracts recently negotiated with other employee groups at Western."
However, the Society of Graduate Students and PSAC Local 610 said there is a lot of information missing from the email. The TA union published an official statement responding to Deakin's email this morning, alleging the email was not sent to the graduate student body nor was it sent to PSAC Local 610 prior to its release.
Mary Blake Bonn, SOGS president, said Deakin's email was factual but misleading. For instance, Bonn pointed to the email's statement that teaching assistants currently receive $43.61 an hour for up to 140 hours per term.
"For many students, [a TAship] is their only source of income because we’re encouraged to devote ourselves full-time to our research, and we’re encouraged to not work more than 10 hours per week," said Bonn, a teaching assistant and a fourth-year PhD candidate in music theory. "If [the TAship] is expected to be somebody's only source of income, it should be considered as such.”
PSAC Local 610's official response stated it is not possible to judge TAs' conditions without taking into account their full funding. The union said the majority of its members do not have tuition fees included in their funding support, and an increase in the cost of living has exceeded TAs' earning increase in the last several years. As such, TAs earn less money each year, with tuition increases diminishing net income. The union's member survey showed that 43 per cent of the union’s members have a net income below $11,000 per year or $917 per month, with a university-owned apartment priced at $950 per month.
The statement said one of the main factors causing precarity among graduate students is the mismatch of funding periods and actual duration of graduate programs. For example, PhD students are only guaranteed a TAship for four years, yet the average time to completion is five years.
Bonn also said comparing the GTA collective agreement with those negotiated with other university employee groups is beside the point. She said the TAs have needs associated with their non-traditional employment situation. Further the wage increases that the bargaining team are asking for are in line with Western's institutional inflation. Bonn added if Western's TAs receive a slightly higher on average hourly rate, it could be due to the length of time TAs have been unionized compared to those at other universities.
“We’re not voting for a strike mandate simply because we want to go on strike," Bonn said. “Some Western undergrads will go on to become Western grad students, and when they work as TAs, we want them to have the best working condition they could have.”
Benjamin Hisey, a Western fifth-year PhD candidate in chemistry, said he hopes TAs have a strong showing for the strike mandate vote and vote for what they feel is appropriate.
"Myself, I think that the only way for our school to take our requests for equal treatment seriously is for the TAs have a strong yes on the strike mandate,” Hisey said.
Both sides will meet on March 27 for further negotiations.
Western did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The article will be updated as comment becomes available.