An open letter from Prof. Paul Downes to his colleagues in the Dept. of English

Subject: An open letter from Prof. Paul Downes to his colleagues in the Dept. of English
From: Paul
Date: 9 Apr 2015


Some members of the department have expressed concern about the unholy mix of TA/instructor wages and graduate funding packages in CUPE’s bargaining with the university administration. Some have suggested that CUPE only represents the graduate students in their capacity as paid TA’s or instructors, not as funded graduate students, and that this makes it difficult for faculty members to support the strike. In some cases, our colleagues are only offering observations about the legal “facts”; in other cases, they are expressing a preference. Others, myself included, want to know what other alternative we have given our graduate students.

The administration vigorously objects to the idea that CUPE can negotiate the terms of the funding package; but they are not doing so simply because they object to the legal validity of such negotiation.
The administration’s insistence on this separation proceeds from a political desire to weaken CUPE’s ability to represent our graduate students effectively. The administration does not want to have to deal with any forceful, organized, collective negotiation of the funding package. Like it or not, the question of whether CUPE can negotiate the terms of the funding package is a political question, not just a legal one, and it has everything to do with graduate student representation.

Who represents our graduate students before the administration? Is it us? Is it our Chairs and graduate officers? The truth is that as the conditions and prospects for graduate students have deteriorated year after year, graduate students (especially in the humanities) have been forced to seek effective representation somewhere, and they have found it, for now, in CUPE. Anyone who wants to deny them that opportunity ought to think seriously about what they have to offer in its place. Desperation and a lack of support has pushed grad students towards organized representation — wherever they can find it.

CUPE maintains that the existence of a graduate funding package is protected by language in CUPE’s collective agreement, and CUPE members have been (fruitlessly) discussing graduate funding with the administration over the past three years in accordance with a Letter of Intent appended to the last collective agreement. There would not be a guaranteed minimum funding package if it were not for the pressure exerted by CUPE. CUPE’s approach, however flawed, is the only one that has had any effect at all. Ask our chairs and directors if they have had any luck securing serious improvements for our students by other means. The administration’s refusal, at this point, to negotiate the overall funding package is part of an effort to download the cost of graduate education to the departments and individual faculty members (funding students through grants etc.), and guess which departments will suffer most from such a model?

What alternatives are there to a centrally negotiated funding package for our graduate students? cuts to the number of our PhD students in English? an increased teaching load and larger classes without TA support for the tenure-track faculty? increased pressure on English faculty to win more and larger grants to help pay for the PhD students we have (in accordance with the model in the sciences and some humanities departments now)? All of the above? Some of us may welcome some or all of these developments; but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that what is going on with CUPE won’t have repercussions of one sort or another for our whole department.

Let’s not forget, too, that when we talk about the minimum funding package, it is our graduate students in English that we are talking about. As the administration have reminded people in their press releases, many graduate students at U of T get far more than the minimum (grad students in Economics, for example, have an effective minimum that is ten thousand dollars a year higher than ours and most of them get far more than that). Striking CUPE members, that is to say, are putting a great deal on the line, and they are doing so primarily for graduate students in the humanities — OUR graduate students!

If I had any evidence, after 19 years at U of T, that we tenured faculty members had either the means, the power or the will to really address the declining situation for our graduate students, I would understand the reluctance to support this strike. This strike is a symptom of all the things many of us are most concerned about: the shrinking public investment in education; the corporatization of the university; the marginalization of the humanities; the rise of one or another form of precarious employment; the widespread hostility towards organized labour; and the ongoing disaster of our inability to promise PhD students in the humanities a decent chance of securing a tenure-track job after they have helped us to teach our undergraduate classes, fill our graduate classes, enhance our reputation and professional status as research professors and sustain a vibrant departmental culture. This strike may not be the strike we wanted, it may be something of a blunt instrument, but it is the strike we have helped to produce and we have offered our students no alternative.

I urge all members of the department to support our graduate students and the members of CUPE unit 1, either by signing the letter circulated by David Galbraith or by writing their own letter to the provost; and I encourage you all to offer 45 minutes of your time next week to join our students on the picket line.