Tuesday, February 17, 2009

York Strike 2008-09

For a period of 3 months, between Nov. 6, 2008 and February 2, 2009 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3903, contract faculty, teaching assitants, graduate assitants, and research assistants from York Univeristy, went on strike to protest unacceptable wages, the instability of contractual work, the underfunding of their university, and the subsequent questionable quality of education that stemmed from these issues. The predictable reaction from the university, from most of the media, and from a majority of unenlightened students was that the union was 'holding the students hostage'. It was an interesting and particularly siginficant strike in Canada's organized labour history for a few reasons. The first and most obvious feature of this stoppage is that it was a considerably long one; I think most people, including those directly involved, did not expect the strike to go on for as long as it did. Another factor which made this strike exceptional is that local 3903 employed unconventionally emphatic and efficient methods at the bargaining table, which surprised and disoriented the University's negotiating team. Many other factors need to and will be further examined, but from whichever angle this strike is observed, it is one that exposed many different shades on different levels of Canadian politics.

What immediately differentiated this strike from others past in Canada were the advanced bargaining practices employed by the local. An article in The Globe And Mail dated Feb.2, 2009 states, that "....the local refused to allow anyone from the national office to participate in bargaining with York management,....The local engaged instead in "participatory bargaining,"* a process that involved giving several grassroots members a voice at the table rather than just leaving bargaining up to the local's executive committee....For York negotiators this created confusion, with no clear lines of authority or indication of who was calling the shots for CUPE, said an official close to the talks. At one point, he said, the local had 25 members at the bargaining table."1 This highlighted differences between local 3903 and CUPE national, differences in principles, tactics, and political approach. This rank and file means of operating during negotiations demonstrates that the local felt the umbrella did not have a good pulse on the sensitive peculiarities of its situation with the university, and maybe points to a larger symptomatic lack of trust between CUPE locals and its national leadership (in general). To be sure, 3903 took a more precocious, disciplined, and uncompromised approach to the collective bargaining sessions, and not the customary, passive status-quo practices which seem to always favour the powerful employers. The fact that the local used out-of-the-ordinary methods seems to have paralyzed the university representatives, who did not know how to respond. Perhaps then the university made the conscious decision to wait for the government to intervene, to put an end to the local's overly socialist way of conducting business.

One of the recurrent themes throughout this long labour action was the issue of chronic under-funding for education throughout the province at the post-secondary level. Tyler Shipley, spokesman for local 3903, often spoke about these system-wide deficiencies which became a central issue later on in the dispute. This issue of underfunding for post-secondary education was certainly further exposed and brought into mainstream attention during the strike, something the university executives and provincial government probably wanted to keep out of the spotlight. The union's success in bringing these issues out in the open constituted an important victory for the strike effort. The teachers' direct line of struggle is through the union, and in their humble demands for job security and decent living wages, but more importantly the strike provided them with an opportunity to campaign for the sake of our students, and to fight for the quality and integrity of post-secondary education in Canada. It provided them with a channel through which they attracted media, and attention from the public eye, and through which they were able to expose the truths, to a certain degree, about the dysfunctional nature of Ontario's university system. Toward the end of the conflict, even York University President Mamdouh Shoukri admitted that there are system-wide issues that need to be addressed. The facts are as follows:

Ontario has the worst record of all the provinces for university funding in Canada. Ontario's level of funding for universities compares to U.S. states with the lowest levels of funding in that country, which means that the under-funding of Ontario universities ranks not only among the worst in Canada, but among the worst in all of North America. And, Ontario's prominent universities have some of the worst student-teacher ratios in North America. This, in turn, forces the hiring of auxiliary workers with no job security, and subsequently diminishes the quality of education. The chronic under-staffing also affects prep-time, the quality of grading, and the quality of lectures, and limits the accessiblity of professors, T.As, G.As, and R.As.

Generally, people are falsely under the impression that colleges and universities are strapped for cash, when in fact they are not. Tuition fees are thousands of dollars per year, coming from thousands of students, not to mention bookstores, residence fees, etc. Tuition in Canada is very expensive, ranging from $ 2,000 to $ 2,500 per term for universities, and is perceived as inexpensive only because tuition for colleges and universities in the United-States can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, Canadian universities are considered to be under a public education system, when in reality they are not. The vast majority of Canadian universities are public only in so far as they receive some public funding, but they are privately owned and operated. In other words, the post-secondary education system in Canada is one in which the government provides subsidies to support massive private wealth.

The Vulture Strategy

Throughout the three month stoppage at York University, the administration conducted itself in a very predictable way, and within specific tactical guidelines which were clear from day one. The union probably knew as well as anyone that the university was not going to make any sort of reasonable offer and would hold out for as long as necessary, because to them the standoff was about money far more so than it was for the union, and simply because they knew they could afford to, and knew they would get away with it. As was pointed out earlier, Canadian universities in general are very financially comfortable, especially the countrie's most prominent ones, the biggest universities in the big cities. Even more specifically Toronto area universities have experienced higher demand and steadily rising levels of enrollment and applications for several years, a long-term trend that will readily continue. Furthermore, it is fact that university enrollment increases in time of economic downturn as people lose their jobs and often go back to school in order to train for new vocations. In other words universities are recession-proof businesses which are not affected negatively by the monetary pressures of a financial crunch.

From the outset the university knew that several factors would play in their favour. First, they knew that one-dimensional public opinion would go against the striking teachers, and primarily it did, without examining the facts and without analysing the situation for themselves.** Secondly, they knew that the media would be either on their side, or at least would present an incomplete version of facts. The media instinctively tended to stress how long the students were out of class for, and not the true nature of the fundamental reasons behind the strike. And third, the administration knew that the government would eventually intervene if they held out long enough. So, the vulture strategy is that of making meager offers at the bargaining table and waiting either on the union to starve, or on the government to pass legislation. One common argument by the administration throughout the conflict was that the university did not have enough money to fulfill the teachers' demands, even though these demands were based largely on job-security and funding issues and not pay-raise oriented. Their claim was that they didn't have enough money because of the current recession, and because of the financial losses resulting from the strike, but as we saw with the reasons discussed in the previous paragraph, these arguments are null and void. It did, however, simultaneously have enough money to keep making unreasonable offers and to drag the strike out for almost three months. If the financial losses from the strike were so devastating to the university's coffers, then it surely would have been in their interest to make a fair offer and to end the strike as soon as possible, something the administration was clearly unwilling to do.


During the late stages of the strike, the local had dropped many of its demands and was willing to settle with York, the university side was made aware of this, but continued to hold out knowing government would step in; a few days later the Liberals spearheaded the back-to-work legislation. The university's handling of the conflict was very unethical, and very unjust. In general, it is unethical that universities are run as businesses and not as institutions of quality public service as they should be. Another example of why healthcare and education should never be allowed to run on a for-profit basis. The
2008-09 York University Strike was also a symbolic action because it affirmed, not necessarily the strenght of public unions at leadership levels in this country, but certainly the increasing grassroots efficiency and militancy of CUPE locals across Canada.

Democracy, and the right to strike, and unions, are there for a reason. They exist to make sure that the millionaire C.E.Os and executives do not always get away with whatever they want, and often what they want is very unreasonable, and very unjust. In this case, the situation was particularly sensitive because it imperiled the education of several thousand students, and so the union received sharp and scathing criticism. Universities have a lot of money, yet they choose to skim off the top, they choose to run their establishments as businesses rather than as institutions of higher learning; the fact that Canada's prominent universities have some of the worst student-teacher ratios in North America is case and point. And, governments also have a lot of money, they also have a lot of expenses, but education and healthcare should always be the top two priorities, and clearly this episode has shown that in Canada, government does not provide enough funding for post-secondary institutions. Yes, amongst many other issues the union was asking for more money, even if only to remedy wages which are below the poverty line, and yes, the union technically did make the decision to go on strike, but the University left them no choice. When the powers-that-be glue your back to the wall, you have no choice but to fight back in the name of decency and social justice. So as much as it was peceived that the union was doing a huge disservice to the students by going on strike, lets hope that in the future, government does not side with big bussiness so eagerly, and that public opinion does not pass judgement so quickly, and let it be shown that a little respect for collective bargaining, organized labour, and the right to strike can go a long way in fixing the ills inherent to a system. Allow democratic processes to take their course, and good things will inevitably come.


* The terminology "Participatory Bargaining" does not need to be put in between quotation marks. The innuendo puts an unneccessarily derogatory and condescending spin on a legitimate and progressive political exercise.

1. Karen Howlett, "Aches From York Strike Expected to Linger", The Globe and Mail, Feb.2, 2009.

** Generally, people don't chew, and taste, and evaluate information, they just swallow what is fed to them.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Tragic, Contradictory Beginning of 2009: War, Obama, and Economic Collapse

First the Good News:

Obama and the Wave of Optimism

As Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United-States, several million American people mobilized to witness the event, while millions more shed tears in front of television screens accross the country. The touching moment evoked similar reactions in countries all accross the world. The prevailing sentiments were hope, joy, a sense of brotherhood and solidarity, and relief that perhaps a better time is coming.

By looking at him, and by listening to him speak, beyond the fact that he is a remarkable speaker, one gets the impression that Barack Obama is in fact honest, and that his intentions really are authentic. But it was clear during his inauguration speech that maybe, he was already beggining to make concessions; it was obvious he said certain things he didn't want to say, but felt he had to say them. It is easy to recognize in him intelligence, resolve, good judgement, and maybe even a reasonable and acceptable sense of justice, but will he, compelled by the establishment, be pressured into making questionable social, ethical, and moral decisions? It is certainly appealing and uplifting to believe in the sincerity of his intentions to make the world a better place, but will capitalism, and the armies of private finance, the lobbyist-infested, corporatist bureaucracy of the United-States, and the billion-dollar greed canons aimed at his head make it impossible for him to do so? Plainly, is the system of injustice just far too entrenched to even allow him to make a difference? I believe in Barack Obama the man, but it is a little bit more difficult to believe in Barack Obama the President of the United-States of America. Lets all hope that he will be courageous enough to bite the bullet, for the sake of the planet, and for the sake of humanity.

Now The Bad News:

The Economic Collapse

It took the conservative right politicians and the dishonest, self-serving media several months to admit to a recession, and even though they have now allowed the fact into mainstream conciousness, they will never admit the true depth and severity of the predicament; that it is a catastrophe and not simply a recession. Capitalism is a social arrangement based not on people, but on finance, which is fuelled by highs and lows, by hypothetical investments, computer transactions, idle wealth, and superficial substance, a castle of cards in a world of cement, flesh, and oxygen, and recession is only a polite term for the disaster state of an already perilous and instable system.

The economic collapse of 2008-2009 was caused by too much greed, too much spending in the wrong places, too much credit. So much time, money, and energy were spent on tax cuts, free trade, and countless measures, creations, and funding to assist open markets, and to privatize security, warfare, and reconstruction. So much credit was granted to those who could not afford it, while governments and corporations cut corners and skimmed off the top on social spending, health insurance and pension plans. Imperialism and corporations were siphoning so many resources, so much wealth and profit, that the world could no longer afford to keep the system afloat. Trillion dollar war-spending exacerbated the situation. Unplanned excesses eventually lead to inevitable imbalances.

When the millionaires realized the machine had gone into overload, their instinctual reaction was to spend money to remedy the situation. The U.S. government handed out hundreds of billions of dollars on rescue packages to save banks, lenders, creditors, and corporations of all sorts, in essence all the same players who were responsible for the economic crash in the first place. Now that Obama is in office, an additional $ 800 billion stimulus package is expected to be pushed through.

Here are the facts on the United-States' current finacial situation:

President Obama's economic stimulus package will be at a cost of $ 800 billion, approximately. Fortunately, much of that money is slated to address much needed social-spending; divided between green initiatives, namely alternative energy and energy efficiency projects, school funding, state money for healthcare and education, and an infrastructure-renewal package. Unfortunately, some of these funds will be wasted on tax cuts of $ 1,000 for most households, at a time when the government can ill-afford to spend money on useless and unnecessary measures. Mercantilist logic dictates that tax cuts must be handed out in order to boost the economy, even in the contemporary United-States where basic needs such health care and education are unaffordable to the poor majority. A secure, stable, and healthy society, with fair and reliable employment, and low-cost quality education and health care, is much more productive and effective than a cluster of individuals who simply have $ 1,000 more to spend.

Despite the stimulus package the reality is that the damage is already done. The upcoming deficit is projected to reach an absurd $ 1.2 trillion, which would represent and unprecedented 8.3 % of GDP. Unemployment will reach 9 % by 2010, a ridiculously high number for an industrial "advanced" country. All this from the world's economic and political leader.

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes that "getting into deficit is easy, even alluring: climbing out of them is difficult."1 The means to escape deficit; "tax increases and spending cuts that almost no American is willing to even contemplate today."2 In other words, wisdom to fiscal responsibility at a time when fiscal irresponsibility is the root cause of the existing problem. He continues by refering to the U.S. as "the debtor, against those from whom it must borrow. After all, Americans cannot possibly finance these new debts themselves, since they could not even finance the old ones."3 So it is again a case of the United-States spending money they don't have.

The Continuing and Deepening Disaster in Afghanistan

On the imperialist front, the media continues to paint the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as rebuilding efforts, when really they are closer to destruction efforts, and they continue to refer to the United-States' strategic world markets and resources control missions as the Middle-East Peace Process, when really it is the Middle-East War Process. So the first deception, the first set of lies, is that the invasion of Afghanistan is actually a mission for progress. For quite some time now major discrepencies in the integrity of the rebuilding efforts have been reported in countless news articles and reports by independent agencies*. An article in The Globe and Mail newspaper, dated Jan 9, 09, stated, "The Chief Review Services report - dated December, 2007, but released only recently after a scrub by government censors - suggests the Kandahar PRT had trouble finding a role for itself alongside the Canadian military, which was busy fighting a counter-insurgency war.....The evaluation says the military pulled the PRT's protective detail at one point in 2006 because soldiers were needed to prepare for a Canadian-led offensive against the Taliban. That left the PRT's efforts hamstrung for a time."4 Reconstruction mission, or rebuilding effort, are simply eloquent and progressive-sounding titles for a purely military, interventionist, and imperialist occupation. Also from the Chief Review Services Report; ""The force protection company was taken away from the KPRT by the (commanding officer) of the battle group to be used as a line infantry company during Operation Medusa. This severly reduced the KPRT's freedom of movement and led to the curtailment of most... activities external to Kanadhar City for the duration of this (rotation)" - until about July or August of 2006, the report says."5 Again, this further demonstrates how the title of reconstruction mission doubles as a cover to legitimize the interventionist occupation of a sovereign country. Worse, the occupation is mandated by a token body of capitalism, the military organization and imperialist facilitator known as NATO.

The second deception and set of lies is that the mission is making progress. In terms of establishing security and a proper "democracy" in the country, well, another article states that "Afghanistan has delayed its presidential election by three months, saying the country needs time to improve security before going to the polls....The Independent Election Commision of Afghanistan announced the move yesterday, saying it hopes the arrival of additional foreign forces, expected later this year, will help stabilize the country...."Without security, there can be no election," said election commision chief Azizullah Lodin."6 A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, stated ""Against this background, there is a risk that it will not be possible to hold elections, or voter turnout may be below the minimum necessary for the ballot to be valid," wrote John Chipman, the institute's director-general."7 Perhaps the December 2004 election of president Hamid Karzai was pushed through by a Washignton hasty to legitimize the justification of the intervention process even under unsuitable conditions, but since the current situation in the country cannot support one, clearly the mission is suffering setbacks, and not making progress.

Despite being experts in interventionist wars, NATO forces at this point are proving incapable of even gaining the upper hand militarily. In terms of fighting, in terms of deaths, in terms of bombings, in terms of overall violence, NATO and U.S. forces have proved incapable of establishing security in most of Afghanistan. The same article states that "Afghanistan has seen an increase in insurgent-led violence, particularly in the southern part of the country....nearly a third of Afghanistan's 364 electoral districts aren't safe."8 and that "Seven years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, Afghanistan is plagued by insurgent attacks and suicide bombs. A newly emboldened Taliban is asserting itself in southern Afghanistan, making last year the deadliest for foreign forces since the invasion."9

Certainly the imperialists are not experts in establishing stability, and free and fair elections, (even when they do manage to run some sort of electoral process they are always elections under occupation, and therefore undemocratic) but the fact that they fail to advance even militarily definitely outlines the catastrophic failure of the mission, at least from a humanitarian point of view. Or, the United-States and its lackeys have decided that the most effective way to profit from Afghanistan is to keep the War at an inconclusive standstill for as long as reasonably possible, and to continue to reap benefits for transnationals through private security and reconstruction contracts, and the necessity of constant supply from arms manufacturers. Perhaps the
military-industrial complex is no joke.

Into the eighth year of the invasion of Afghanistan, the situation is worse than the previous year and continues to worsen. it is impossible to candidly speak of any type of real progress, in a country torn by violence and desolation.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to send up to an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan over the next 18 months.

In Canada the war at home is being felt as well; while public funding is being drastically cut in many key areas, the cost for the "rebuilding" project in Afghanistan is projected to cost as much as $ 18-billion by 2011.

The Conservative government of Canada since re-election has now managed to pass a budget laden in tax cuts which favours business, and spurns the Canadian working class in their most desperate time of need. They also intended to roll back democratic processes by attempting to outlaw the right to strike for public employees. And they attempted to remove public funding for political parties, which would expose a relatively clean Canadian political system to further corporatism, corruption, and lobbying.

Newly released statistics have revealed a harsh reality for Canadian soldiers, that 1 of 7 Afghanistan veterans go on to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Although they are relatively few, lest we forget our kindhearted Canadian brothers and sisters victim to imperialist wars.

In January of 2009, among soldiers in the U.S. army, there were only 16 deaths to 24 suicides, which means that more American soldiers are taking their own lives than being killed by enemy forces. A very unfortunate and telling statistic for the U.S. military.

There were a registered 129,000 job losses in Canada for the month of January. That same number is 600,000 in the United-States.

(I have not even touched on the continued and intensified Israeli apartheid assault on the starving and besieged people of Palestine, or on the Ontario Liberal Government's suspension of the right to strike against public union CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) 3903 through a back-to-work legislation. There is much more that could be written about.)

The People of the World must ambitiously embrace the realities of 2009 with vulnerable open arms, and a very heavy heart. But they must do so consciously with the knowledge that progress is imminent, with positive energy, and with a little bit of fury and fire in their hearts.


1,2,3. Jeffrey Simpson, "Their Deficit, Our Prespective", The Globe And Mail, January 9, 2009.

*Namely a report by the Senlis Council, "Stumbling Into Chaos: Afghanistan on the Brink", November, 2007. But, also many others.

4,5. Steven Chase, "Afghan Rebuilding Efforts Slowed by Poor Planning", The Globe And Mail, January 9, 2009.

6,7,8,9. Jane Armstrong, "Afghanistan Delays Presidential Vote by Three Months", AFP reprinted in The Globe And Mail, Jan 30, 2009.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Stroll Through Dufferin Mall

Walking amidst this colony of consumer robots, waiting for their coffee, in line for their life-saving lottery tickets, as a woman walks ten feet ahead of her unmindful two year old son not even paying attention to him, and a man contemplates a
freshly-squeezed juice stand thinking only of the health benefits of a smoothie but oblivious to the fact that he's concurrently making corporations richer by doing so, with oranges and mangos probably coming from the fruit company corporate monopolies of banana republic Central America. Yet, we are all bamboozled participants victim to the system that surrounds us, and all these thoughts are going through my mind as I enter wal-mart. Later on, picking vegetables, moving ten paces faster than the sluggish public around me, I see a disoriented elderly lady almost spinning circles in anxiety, terrified of how fast the world moves, and every person I see has no idea what is going on around them, as a short middle-aged lady is getting upset with the not-so-graceful movements of the woman in the wheel-chair because she is taking up too much space.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Quote of the Week

"Let justice roll down like waters, And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." - Amos 5:24