TA/TF union likely ‘ineffective’

Organization would lack the creativity and flexibility necessary to move forward

Arash Farzam-Kia PhD ’10
Arash Farzam-Kia PhD ’10

There have recently been two separate unionization drives targeting administrative staff and teaching assistants/graduate students (henceforth used interchangeably). As mostly full-time, long-term employees of the university, administrative staff require the sort of certainty and protection a union can afford, and therefore deserve the community’s full support. In the case of teaching assistants, however, it is not sufficient to provide reasons of a general nature that purport to show unionization to be, in abstract, a good thing. Nor from the fact that there are some demographics that can take advantage of goods offered by a union does it follow that a union can furnish TAs with the same goods. The relevant question with respect to the TA unionization drive, therefore, is what facts about TAs and their experience at Queen’s count in favor of unionization at this point in time.

TAFA complains about the absence of a formal, legally binding document governing interactions between teaching assistants and the university, particularly as it pertains to a non-arbitrary mechanism for distribution of teaching assistantships, a clear definition of ‘work’ and a legally enforceable grievance process. It urges that arrangements between teaching assistants and the University ought to have more teeth. But given the unique position TAs occupy on this campus, as not merely laborers, nor as merely laborers and students, but as laborers, students and professionals-in-training, this more teeth argument is plausible only on the assumption that there exists a clear demarcation between the role graduate students play as TAs and their non-labor functions on this campus. But this assumption is clearly false, as any realistic view of graduate student experience indicates. Addressing graduate student issues requires creativity and flexibility, neither of which is offered by a union. Adopting an analogy popularized by President-elect Obama, we can say that addressing graduate student issues requires a scalpel. The proponents of unionization, by contrast, are offering us a hatchet. The concern is not only that the unique role graduate students occupy will likely make a union ineffective, but also that a hatchet in the hands of an ideologically-driven union hierarchy (something which cannot be ruled out) will be counter-productive and against the interests of the overwhelming majority of graduate students, as some of our colleagues at, for example, York University can attest.

TAFA also complains that the University does not contribute to a TA health and dental plan, promising improvements not only in benefits, but also in “pay security.” This more benefits argument is also unsound, if not misleading, as a union is incapable of achieving net improvements in either of these areas. The process of “bargaining” requires a give and take that makes the outcome far from certain. This is particularly true in the case of graduate students, whose funding packages come from a variety of sources, namely TAships, external and internal scholarships and supervisors’ grants. The fact that a union has jurisdiction to “bargain” on the first of these sources only (i.e. on wages and benefits only) has two consequences. In the first place, a union cannot guarantee a net increase in graduate students’ take-home pay, since not even a union can prevent the university from shifting resources to yield an increase in wages and benefits, with a corresponding (or even larger) decrease in internally administered fellowships and grants. This is particularly true in the present economic environment, characterized by shrinking government funding and out of control structural inflation. In the second place, and as a corollary, only those graduate students with external funding, who constitute a relatively small minority, are even likely to see a net increase in their take-home pay (and benefits). These claims can be further substantiated by comparing the financial standing of Queen’s graduate students with graduate students at other universities in Ontario and Canada. Such a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of the present discussion, but it will suffice to note that Queen’s graduate students rank amongst the highest in the country in terms of average funding packages (in terms of average take-home pay), as I found during my time as President of the SGPS, when I had the opportunity to discuss funding issues with many graduate students from other universities in Ontario and across Canada.

In deciding whether to support unionization, graduate students have to face two questions. One, whether they wish to institute a framework which is designed to take away the sort of flexibility essential to graduate studies. Two, whether they wish to put their trust in an organization with, at best, divided loyalties. On the first score, the best guide to what a union will do for us is what they have done or have failed to do in the past. On the second score, if one is to trust anyone, it seems more reasonable to trust one’s supervisor, department and the University, all of whom have some stake in one’s academic and professional success.

Arash Farzam-Kia served as the 2007-08 president of the Society of Graduate and Professional Students.

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