Purple and Poor: The Real Western Experience

Eric Lohman and Warren Steele holding up signs that say "You are not a loan" and "will teach for food"

The following article appeared in OPENWIDE Volume 14 Issue 5. It was written by PhD candidate Eric Lohman and FIMS part-time Professor Warren Steele.

Eric Lohman is a PhD candidate, lecturer, and occasional TA in FIMS. He studies the intersections between capitalism, gender, labour, and technology.

Warren Steele is a part-time professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, where he teaches a full course load on a variety of subjects, including critical race theory and the meaning of technology.

The response received from Western’s central administration regarding our occupation of the Founder’s Day Twitter hashtag can be summed up in two points. First, that we are all encouraged to use social media to voice our concerns about the issues that affect us. Second, complaints about wages and job security are best addressed at the bargaining table, not through social media. Despite the contradictions evident when juxtaposing both points, we generally agree with the representatives from Western, and demand meaningful action from the central administration in its upcoming negotiations with the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA). However, we are also deeply disappointed, if unsurprised, by Western’s refusal to address our immediate concerns about poverty-level wages and job security for sessional instructors, and other precarious university employees, working in every sector of this institution.

Clearly, Western’s top administrators would like nothing more than for all of this to go away. And for everyone on campus to finally stop talking about practices they would rather keep quiet. But that’s not going to happen. And we will not go away. For Western’s ‘best student experience’ is not only built on the thorough exploitation of its workforce, but managed by people that would willfully bury every single student in debt solely to increase their revenue stream. After all, if there is one aspect of Western of which we are all aware, it’s the central administration’s obsession with its brand image, and the way in which they choose to promote that image over and above alleviating the debt load incumbent on so many students, or by working to improve the welfare of part-time professors, TAs, and staff members who teach and support those students. As educational workers subject to the administration’s refusal to pay us fairly for the work that we do, or to provide us even with a modicum of care while working in their employ, we are tired of this treatment. Today we hold the President’s office accountable for the abuses they allow.

When Amit Chakma took over in 2009, it was with the specific goal of increasing Western’s global presence. So far, the administration has spent $200,000 we are aware of to change the name of the university to a moniker we already used. Worse still, it would seem that transforming Western into the Harvard of Canada is limited solely to increasing tuition fees, as if to mimic more closely the excessive cost of attending an institution like Harvard. All while policing student activities that would dare to challenge this image. Silence, it seems, is part of the plan at Western University. At least as much, if not more, than the bland Stalinist optimism, and meaningless business-speak, that colors its public face. Needless to say, the empty response we received for our Twitter occupation is reasonably explained by a central administration that doesn’t want its brand permanently damaged by stories of widespread worker abuse. But we don’t care about what the administration wants. What matters to us is what it’s like to work at Western, and it’s about time we all start talking about our working conditions.

Support for our position has been constant and widespread. Coming not just from staff members expected to work too many hours for zero pay, from TAs who can barely feed themselves, and sessional instructors who are struggling to stay afloat on wages that are nothing short of insulting, but from students who are now asking each other the same questions all over campus: what is our tuition being used for? Where is our money really going? Indeed, as students who attend an institution with the highest tuition fees in Ontario, what is that institution actually doing with the money it collects? International students have been especially vocal in this respect, as each of them pays at least three times more than their Canadian counterparts. And for what? How could that price ever be justified when the men and women they came here to learn from can barely live off the money they make, while the debts incurred by every student, foreign and domestic, cannot but close off as many opportunities as they allegedly create? It is worrying, if not strange, that Dr. Chakma should have no problem with this in his subsidized mansion on the hill. But then we’re talking about a man with such poor judgement that he recently congratulated former Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, for “outstanding service to Canada”, when Flaherty said publicly in 2012, “There are no bad jobs, the only bad job is not having a job.” This is the Canada they’ve created for us: take whatever job you can get, never mind your skills or training, and be happy if you earn enough money for food.

Not everyone has been supportive of our methods or our message. Some of the more reactionary factions on campus have criticized us for speaking out in a manner they deem unprofessional, while others have resorted to predictable neoliberal defenses of the status quo. Some have said that our predicament is our own fault for selecting foolishly unprofitable career paths like humanities research. Others have suggested that if we were better scholars or teachers we could expect fair compensation. The university is supposed to be the one institution where people are free, encouraged in fact, to pursue projects and research for the sake of pursuing them, because capitalism and bureaucrats are notoriously inept at predicting the type of knowledge-creation our society will benefit from. Nonetheless, the real labour conditions that exist in North America betray the myth of meritocracy. The truth is the job market that awaits us all, regardless of what our major is or what our academic accomplishments are, is universally dismal. Faith that one will succeed based on their own merit is only sustained until one finds him or herself hopelessly exploited, in spite of their hard work.

For instance, a part-time Western staff member contacted us to express solidarity in our plight, and to tell us her story. Contractually she is paid for no more than twenty-four hours of work per week. If she were given a contract for anything over twenty-four hours, she would become a member of the University of Western Ontario Staff Association (UWOSA), and would enjoy protections against overwork. She informed us that despite having a contract for twenty-four hours, she is regularly expected to work between twenty-five and thirty hours per week, and is often required to take work home. Since this person is not part of the union, she has no recourse to complain. Without that protection, refusing extra work would likely spell the end of her employment here at Western.

In addition, the teaching assistant’s union at Western recently increased the amount of money available to TAs for food assistance, because the original fund was completely exhausted. Many TAs struggle to feed themselves on the wages they earn, and are often compelled to share their own meagre resources when their colleagues and friends are in need. To put the TA wage in perspective, a high school student making the legal student wage of $9.60 an hour, which is below the minimum wage, working 16 hours a week at Tim Horton’s, will make more in a year than a teaching assistant at Western. The administration would like us to believe that TAs are not poorly paid at all, but, if TAs feel they are, they should elect representatives to address the issue at future bargaining sessions. As though compelling the administration to pay people fairly were just a matter of asking politely, when the fact is the administration works to negotiate terms that ensure starvation wages.

To those who claim we should confine our displeasure to official channels, we remind you that many have been working to resolve these issues for quite some time through official channels. The Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), for example, for whom we both work, has been actively trying to address the problems of part-time precarity with no results. The faculty has even put together a Limited Duties Affairs Committee designed to deal with the concerns of part-time instructors at FIMS. But work like this only goes so far, and given the lack of progress in recent years, and the deaf ears on which our concerns continue to fall, we thought it was time to communicate our plight publicly; rather than have our objections repeatedly stifled, and ultimately silenced, by official channels designed to do just that. Poverty level wages for part-time instructors and TAs has been an ongoing practice for years at Western. Ask yourself why the wider campus community has only begun to talk about this now.

Thanks to a recent report by the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association, at least we now know where tuition is going, as student fees make up the lion’s share of Western’s private investments. In fact, UWOFA examined the university’s independent audit, and found that the administration has just over $1 billion dollars of your money, your debt, your parent’s money, invested in hedge funds, stocks, and bonds of various kinds. Moreover, the administration is running a $202 million dollar surplus, with no plans to reinvest any of it in the people who actually make up Western’s academic and working life, either by raising pay for employees, hiring new tenure track professors, improving working conditions for teachers and staff, or actively lowering student fees. Instead, the central administration imposes budget constraints that force faculties and departments to cut courses and increase class sizes, while declining to create new tenure-track jobs because they claim to have no money. When in reality, Western has a billion dollars invested in its stock portfolio, but refuses to invest in us. Why are students paying the highest tuition in Ontario if it’s not being used to cover operating costs? Why are teachers going hungry when the university clearly has more than enough money to ensure their workers have the means to live well? More to the point, as students, what is your education really worth if the end goal is to get any job you can find? And how much does this school really value the service it provides when it pays its teachers a wage so low that many have to worry about whether they will eat?

In the upcoming bargaining session, UWOFA will have the interests of the part-time faculty placed in opposition to the interests of its full-time tenure track members, and those on the bargaining committee will have to decide if they are willing to go to the lines for us. We cannot overstate how important it is for the members of UWOFA not only to stand with us, but to stand up for us, because we, the precarious part-time laborers, have nowhere else to turn. Every exploited student, overworked TA, underpaid sessional, and disrespected staff-person is counting on you to immediately improve the labor conditions of the part-time membership, and thereby set an example for other Western unions when it comes to protecting their most vulnerable members. With this in mind, we ask that UWOFA make the wages and working conditions of sessional instructors a key issue in any strike vote. And we call on those who don’t have a seat at the bargaining table to speak up and exert further leverage in the public sphere to support those who do.

Western’s central administration, in encouraging us to employ our voices through social media, has given us the go-ahead to challenge their brand image. And we believe Western’s preferred narrative of ‘the best student experience’ should be juxtaposed with the Western experience as it actually exists: labour exploitation, high tuition fees, squandered resources, and incompetent, disrespectful leadership. It’s clear that Western’s leadership doesn’t care about any of us, but what they do care about is what other people think of Western. Exploiting that obsession is a powerful way to force the administration to address our complaints, and to begin working with us to realize our collective desires for good jobs, good lives, quality education, and brighter futures. Join us by telling your story about the real Western experience.

If you want to contribute your story, tweet it to #purpleandpoor #since1878

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9 thoughts on “Purple and Poor: The Real Western Experience

  1. A reader questioned the validity of the statistic that stated Western has the highest tuition fees in Ontario, and indeed this appears to be a mistake. What we meant to write was that Ontario has the highest tuition fees in Canada, which frankly is just as bad. Sorry for the confusion, it was not our intention to be misleading.

  2. This seems to relate to our Canadian government and how it treats our seniors who built this great country!! Rich get richer and the poor………..we’ll so be it !
    Congrats on this article, let’s hope it helps the working class that built it.

  3. I think this is an important topic but there is a fundamental difference between students (even those at the graduate levels) and instructors. A lot of the critique of this criticism is gravitating towards whether PhD candidates should be paid more as they are students, instead of, as I believe, part time faculty members which are the precarious labours that are playing an increasingly important role in the university system.

  4. *EDIT:
    “… as they are students, instead of, as I believe, part time faculty members which are the precarious labours not studying and the overall work done by part-time faculty and grad students that are playing an increasingly important role in the university system.”

  5. If you don’t like the pay, don’t do the job. If you don’t like the school, don’t attend. It’s supply and demand. It’s a business, which western is, and no business will pay more than they have to for anything. Pretty simple.

  6. There is no fundamental difference between students and instructors as students are often at the same time instructors (though less of this will happen due to courses being cut). After 4 years of funding you’re on your own; the only way to support yourself, pay tuition is to instruct and/or take up loans. There is no difference really; the only difference is whether you pay tuition or not.

  7. Actually, there is more difference than this. The more teaching experience the sessional gains, the less marketable they become. Hiring practices for full time employment do not favour the long serving sessional. Also, sessionals do not have the (admittedly meagre) benefits that grad students have. No eye care, no bus pass.

  8. Pingback: (523) Working at Western | suburban-poverty.com

  9. I agree, there is no difference between part-time instructors and part-time instructors that are currently students. If you are instructing a course, you are instructing a course. You are doing the same job. In some cases, you are doing even more; a friend of mine is a PhD student who teaches a second-year undergraduate course with approximately 100 students. She was not given a TA and is required to respond to student questions and do all the marking on her own. If this were a professor, or even a part-time instructor, they would definitely be given a TA…or two. However, because she is a student, the “experience” of teaching is supposed to be enough to make up for all the extra work.

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