What I learned from my labour union

What I learned from my labour union

What does it mean to be a student of higher education? For many it means studying at a valued institution in the pursuit of knowledge, but increasingly with the rise of neoliberalism in universities, it also means working part time to afford such a privilege.

It wasn’t always this way. Studying used be seen as full time occupation, a laborious project that deepens the mind and expands the heart. But as tuition rates spike, and students scramble for part (or full) time jobs to cover the costs, such studious labour tends to be ignored. But as Professor Adam Kotsko reminds us,

School work is work. It’s a full-time job. One of the biggest flaws in our current higher ed system is that it forces students to take on a second (or third!) job that distracts them from their school work and keeps them from getting the maximum benefit from their one chance to go to college.

While attending higher education with your time completely focused on your studies is the goal (with the ultimate goal being free tuition so anyone, anywhere can attend), the reality of these dual types of labour—studying and working—exists for many students. In this time of neoliberalization, the latter type of labour can be used as a weapon for the masses to fight against the creep of precarious work and academic exploitation. As a graduate student at York University in Toronto, Ontario, my participation in my local union, CUPE 3903, has taught me a few things in how students can unite for a better working and, by extension, learning environment.

1. Unions stand united against precarity.

Being a student is a unique category. It’s a transitive phase in one’s life, full of movement and promise, but it also can translate to vulnerability and exploitation. I experienced this in my own life. In the fall of my first year in my master’s program, I was asked if I could help invigilate an exam for a professor. Thinking it was a great volunteer opportunity, I stood in a large lecture hall for three hours assisting with questions and watching for cheating. It wasn’t much later in the school year, when I was offered the same gig but for a pay check, that I realized my labour had been exploited. I should have been paid for the work I had performed, and luckily, being in a union, I had methods of recourse to demand back pay.

Academic labour unions can protect students from such sneaky exploitation. As thousands of students come and go through a campus, a union acts as a rooted vessel of institutional knowledge, able to educate new students not only in their rights and benefits as workers, but also the history of the institution and the union itself. As labour acts as a tether, a connection to the place of work, unions protect those connections and foster bonds between members as well for a better working, and learning, environment.

2. Unions become a family, and a home.

When I first had a phone conversation with a professor in my department, she had mentioned the successful strike by my future union that guaranteed tuition indexation for international students. I had known about the strike, following along online, and was relieved to hear this. With this information, I happily moved to Toronto to pursue my master’s. It wasn’t until I arrived at my new home that I heard the news: the university decided to interpret the language differently, meaning my $10,000 scholarship was quickly eaten up by unexpectedly higher tuition rates.

As an international student paying an obscene amount compared to domestic students, I attended any union meeting or event I could to fight against this. I soon found myself among friends and colleagues who cared about my education and my situation. The union office, with its coffee machine and kitchen, became a second home for me as I became more ingrained in the union. When the university finally settled and agreed to pay as initially won, I was overjoyed, and celebrated among colleagues that were as happy as I was. We fought collectively, and grew together as a result. In fighting precarity, union friends become your closest friends, united not just by a workplace, but by a passion for justice as well.

3. Union solidarity extends beyond your own local.

As a strong local, we also support other unions in their fights for equitable work and better benefits. One such struggle included cafeteria workers at University of Toronto. As their work was shifting from an outside contractor to in-house, the U of T took the opportunity to strip the workers of their long-earned union benefits, such as seniority, placing them on probation and shifting them into a different union all together, while also hiring only 85% of the original staff.

Fellow union members walked the picket lines with the cafeteria staff, supporting them even amidst a controversy, as the other union raiding the cafeteria workers was a fellow CUPE local. But access to fair jobs is an issue we fight together, not just on the campus, but across the city of Toronto and beyond. A good local is not insular, but branches out in solidarity with others for a better working world.

4. Unions can be a place of power, a place of hope.

Academic unions have the power to shape our place of learning for the better. Members separated into departments, programs, and campuses, can come together united under a common goal: solidarity for jobs and justice. The union is a place of rest and nourishment, but also of activism and change. Working with the union has been some of the most challenging, yet rewarding work I’ve done in my life, and I look forward to what we can collectively build for the future.