Opinion | TA Pay Cuts Should Be Fought as a Labor Rights Issue

As students prepare to meet at 6 P.M. on Tuesday, Jan. 30 in Publique to discuss cuts to teaching assistant compensation, one Seeple proposes a labor-rights approach to the issue

By Jessica Burke

As many students have heard by now, SIPA’s administration announced this fall that it is cutting the compensation for TAs, DRAs, PAs, and readers by a considerable amount come Fall 2018.

It has been explained by administration officials that the difference (which for TAs is approximately $8000) is a tuition credit which had previously been bundled with salary payments, putting “significant pressure on the assistantship allocation process.”

They are now un-bundling it to “reduce stress,” and allow for an overall increase in the amount of aid offered upon admission. In other words, the administration insists that they are not actually cutting salaries—just removing a tuition credit which was never part of the actual compensation for work done in the first place.

SIPA administration has repeatedly emphasized that they are not reducing the overall amount of aid distributed, and this is not under dispute nor is it material to many students’ concerns. The simple fact remains that the administration has chosen to cut the salaries of its graduate student workforce by up to 40% in order to “help students with long-term financial planning.”

We need to respond to this as a labor issue and not an aid issue. If the school was in the midst of a funding crisis and could no longer afford to provide the same level of aid as before, that would be one thing. But since student assistants clearly provide a paid service, what is essentially an extreme pay cut cannot possibly be dismissed by saying that part of the previous compensation for student employees wasn’t actually meant to be compensation—an excuse which clearly wouldn’t be accepted by any regular university employee under similar circumstances

Of all the things we’ve heard from the university to explain the changes, my personal favorite was in the assistantships and fellowships informational meeting last Friday, when a representative of the administration made the argument that even after the reduction in payment to TAs from $20,000 to $12,000 per semester, the hourly rate of that salary was still very high, and that it was in fact much higher than anything he would have expected to receive when he was a student.

First of all, one has to wonder when he was a student: the astronomical costs of secondary education in the US are a relatively new phenomenon. Between 1993 and 2007, university expenses rose 35 percent, and it is perhaps noteworthy for this discussion that much of that is the result of a 61 percent rise in the costs of administration.

But more importantly, this is not the first time the administration has made this argument (i.e. that we should stop complaining and be grateful for what we are getting), and we need to be vocal in rejecting such a condescending and frankly insulting attitude when such a dramatic worsening in work conditions is imposed.

The administration itself previously calculated that same hourly wage and came up with a number that was 40% higher than what they are paying us this year—calling it a “tuition credit” doesn’t change that simple fact. This is not about a lack of gratitude: it’s about a lack of respect on the part of the administration for worker and student rights.

What should be clear to all is that this is a fight which requires organization, as well as a partnership between students advocating for needs-based financial aid and those advocating for worker rights.

The administration has made it clear that they value the work of TAs and readers 40 percent less this year than they did during years in which they were not expected to provide needs-based financial aid. Now that they have finally joined all other schools at Columbia in offering some level of it, both groups of advocates must insist that the pilot program be adequately funded (and committed to), and also that the “holistic” merit and needs-based scholarships offered upon admission not be funded with the so-called “tuition credit” of students who are employed by the university.

There are other elements to the changes in assistantship structure that students are understandably upset about—an increase in taxes that the new salary structure will impose, and the downgrading of positions from TA to reader, for example.

While there has been a group of students advocating around this issue since last semester, I want to put out a disclaimer that I am new to this cause and am offering my independent view on the issue. I look to this existing group of advocates for guidance based on their experience — but the views and proposals expressed here do not  necessarily reflect the views of the group as a whole.

Fortunately, this old guard of advocates, along with people who are recent inductees to the issue, will all be getting together to more clearly delineate what our concerns are on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at 6 P.M. in Publique so that we can move forward as one group with a clear mission and mutually-agreed upon goals. We encourage anyone interested to join us.