Sunday, 1 May 2011

Thoughts on the UofM CUPE 3909 strike vote

This past Friday, the University of Manitoba union CUPE 3909 representing teaching assistants, markers, and tutors voted to authorize strike action, rejecting the University's contract offer. The issue: wages, job security, and guaranteed hours, according to union President Matt McLean.

When I was at the U of M, I was all three of those things: TA, marker, tutor, as well as a research assistant. In fact, I too participated in a strike vote. I voted "no". Why? Because I had accepted my wage and conditions of employment when I took the job. What grounds did I have to demand more?

Besides, all of these jobs pay very well, relatively speaking. I was paid about double what I made at my weekend job. These were by far the best paying jobs I had in my life, at the time. Oddly, the hourly wage for a marker has not changed much from when I was doing it, although TA wages have gone up a fair bit. Even still, the $13/hr you make as a marker is better than what most students could expect at any alternative employment, which often involves a spatula.

In addition, it was common to get paid for more hours than were worked, especially for markers. My first marking job: I handed back the papers and told the professor that it took me 25 hours to complete them, even though he told me in advance that his budget was for 50 hours. "Are you sure it didn't take you 50 hours?" he asked? "No, only 25" I said. He looked at me like I was some crazy person, before explaining that normally profs are expected to spend their whole budget. I was only being honest, but I didn't know about "the understanding." I didn't make that mistake again.

On principle, I don't generally agree with striking for wages or job security. There are economic implications to having an inflexible labour market that such actions can lead to, but my general attitude can be summed up more simply as: "If you aren't happy with your job, get a different one." Mind you: the work force for these jobs is a captive one -- you can't exactly get a job as a TA at SFU when you're a student at the U of M. But on the other hand, these are plum jobs, and there is a lot of competition for them. I would have done the work for half the money, not just because I needed the money, but because at that stage of my life a TA position was by far the best looking thing on my résumé.

Although I don't agree with striking for wage increases or job security, I can understand the motivation in some circumstances -- but not this one. These are not career jobs. A person can not expect to be a marker or student lecturer for any more than a few years. Job security should be a non-issue, and the wages, for a student, are good. There is no rationale for striking in this stituation except for greed.

Collective bargaining agreement

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