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.

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