From the Oppressed Workers File


Hey Doogie, here's a riddle for you. What job forces you to pay $1500 to your employer every four months?

Well, Devi, I'm just a simple valley boy, but the last time I looked at the help wanted ads, wages looked positive. Why would
anyone ever accept a job that made you pay $1500 every four months?

Graduate student teaching assistants and sessional instructors at SFU, apparently.

That's outrageous! Are these people slaves? Were they captured in Iraq and now are held here against their will and forced to pay money to work? What can possibly explain this negative wage rate?

Doogie, you know very well that TAs and sessionals earn positive wages. But as a condition of employment, these students must actually be enrolled as students, so that they are "forced" to pay a $1500 tuition fee.

They are "forced" to pay for tuition? The same way that I am "forced" to pay my grocer for any food that I load in my shopping cart? What an outrageous concept!

Yes, I see what you mean. But there's a little more to it than this. Take a look at the complaint issued by the TSSU. They claim that:

"Being a teaching assistant, tutor maker or sessional instructor at SFU, you have to pay SFU roughly $1500 every semester in tuition in order to keep your graduate student status, in spite of the fact that you can’t utilize the university services in a full-time fashion to study or to do your own research.  Why do you have to pay full-time tuition fees when you are actually a part-time student?"

Can this be true?

Well, it is true that all TAs and sessionals must pay a tuition fee, even if they are not officially enrolled in any classes. But their claim that these people cannot utilize university services is patently false. According to their collective bargaining agreement, the university must provide office space, textbooks, pens, paper, grade books, photocopying, software, computer access, personal mailboxes, phone access, etc. They also have access to the professors and secretaries in their department.

Gee Devi...paying $1500 a term for all of these services doesn't sound like a bad deal to me. I mean, the concept of actually paying for something you make use of isn't exactly a radical concept, is it? How much do you think it would cost them to rent these services in the market? But on the other hand, maybe it's a lot of money to pay if they are not getting paid well. How much does a TA make?

That's a good question Doogie. The amount they get paid depends on the number of "contact hours" they have with students. For the maximum contact hours (210 hours per semester), a TA earns around $5800, which works out to about $28 per hour. Of course, the 210 hours is just a "made up" number. Actual class time amounts to 48 hours per semester. If it takes 2 hours a week to prepare, and maybe 2 hours a week to grade, and maybe another 24 hours for meeting with students, that's only 120 hours of work in a semester. This works out to about $48 an hour. And of course, these numbers do not include the value of their negotiated benefits.

Sweet Jesus...TAs make between $30 to $50 an hour?! If they were "forced" to work in the market (like most people), they'd likely be earning something close to the minimum wage. In that case, they'd have to work over 700 hours per term to earn $5800. By offering graduate students the opportunity to TA, the university (courtesy of the taxpayer) is in effect giving them roughly 600 hours of free time per semester! What is the TSSU griping about?

Well Doogie, the TSSU would obviously rather not view things this way. They would like to portray our TAs and sessionals as part of an "oppressed" working class, that is "forced" to pay an "unjust" tuition fee. My best guess is that this is just a negotiating tactic to lobby the administration for more money, especially for those graduate students who take an inordinate amount of time to complete their degree.

Yes, I've heard of cases where graduate students at SFU take years and years to finish even a master's degree. At most schools, a master's degree takes less than one year to complete. Why do some of our students take so long to complete their degree?

There are likely several reasons for this, Doogie, some of which may be legitimate. But some students are just natural malcontents. They may be bitter because they realize that their "genius" is not likely to be recognized in the market place. Upon graduation, they may be "forced" to work at low paying jobs. Extending their graduate school stay (for example, by working at the TSSU instead of completing their studies) is a much better option. But being unappreciative malcontents, they are not happy about making "only" $30 an hour. They want more money. And they want everyone else to pay for it.

But don't these people realize that this money does not just fall from the sky? If the university has a fixed budget for TAships, then by prolonging their stay here, they are in effect reducing the amount of funding available for future cohorts of students. If the university increases the budget for TAships, then simple arithmetic tells us that other programs in the university must suffer. I'm not sure how much sympathy these bozos are likely to generate from other groups when they find out that TAs make over $30 an hour! They certainly do seem to have an inflated opinion of themselves and their value to society.

It is interesting to note that the TSSU slogan is: "The University Works Because We Do."

That's funny! Could you imagine what would happen if the university had no TAs? Students would have no tutorials to skip! They'd actually have learn the material by attending lectures, talking to their profs, and reading stuff. Clearly, the university would have no option by to shut down.

Doogie, do I detect a note of sarcasm in that last remark? I personally value my TAs very much (although, I'm not sure that I would pay them $30 an hour out of my own pocket). And sessional instructors teach a lot of courses for us.

Well, perhaps I got carried away a little bit. But you know Devi, I was a TA once and I believe you were too. At the time I considered it a privilege, not a right. I actually would have paid money to be able to hang out with professors, have access to the graduate program, and hone my skills as a presenter in a teaching environment. I didn't view it as a career, or a job (it was so easy), but primarly as a way the university helped me finance my education.

I'm with you on this one Doogie -- and I'm sure that the vast majority of TAs and sessionals feel the same way. Makes one wonder though about what the TSSU's true motives are...

I think it's pretty clear who's interests they're representing, Devi: their own -- along with the minority of grad students who take no classes and because of this do not feel obliged to pay tuition (despite being provided office space, mailboxes, supplies, computer accounts, secretarial services, etc.). This small set of students essentially would like to pursue a career as "professional students," but for higher wages and low working hours, leaving them free to pursue their true life objective of raising shit and drinking beer at the student pub.

You catch on pretty fast for a valley boy, Doogie. I propose that we nominate the TSSU with our "crybaby of the year award." What do you think?

I'll second the motion!


Send your comments and criticisms to Doogie and Devi:

We will try to post all informative/entertaining responses (both pro and con).