Strike cancels classes at Toronto’s York University

By our reporting team
15 November 2008

Striking TAs from York UniversityThree thousand, three hundred and fifty part-time teachers' assistants and contract faculty have withdrawn their services at York University in a strike against the school administration's attempt to continue a regime of poverty compensation, benefit cuts, and job insecurity.

On Thursday, the strike by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 entered its second week and negotiators for the two sides met for the first time since the strike began. But the talks broke down after only a few hours and the university administration all but rejected further negotiations, with university spokesperson Alex Bilyk declaring, "binding arbitration ... is the quickest way to get our 50,000 students back to class." 

The third largest institution of higher learning in Canada, York University has cancelled all classes since the strike began on November 6. 

Teaching assistants at York are full-time graduate students who are only allowed to work ten hours per week—both inside and outside the university.  Should they take on any additional paid labour, the university imposes substantial financial penalties. They earn as little as $10,000 a year for their services and, along with their contract faculty colleagues, provide over 50 per cent of all instruction to students on campus.

Contract faculty, the other job classification in the collective agreement, earn about $14,000 for each course that they design, teach, and grade. Despite often having similar degree qualifications and competitive publication records, contract faculty earn much less than tenured professors at the university. Tenured professors receive a minimum of $80,000 per year for typically teaching no more than three full-year classes. Currently, contract faculty suffer under some of the most draconian job insecurity provisions in the entire profession. Each and every semester they must re-apply for their job no matter what their level of experience, skill or qualification.

In a bitter eleven-week strike that ended in early 2001, CUPE Local 3903 surrendered provisions that allowed contract faculty to sign contracts for up to five years. 

In the current dispute, the union has demanded an 11 per cent increase in wages over a two year contract, an improvement in the meagre health benefits currently in place, and the right for contract faculty to sign long-term contracts. 

Negotiators for the university have offered 9.5 per cent over three years, cuts in benefits and no improvements on job security issues. 

They are also demanding that the union submit to binding arbitration, in a bid to have an arbitrator compare York University's contract offer with other provincial universities where wages and other provisions are often even worse.

The dispute at York is rooted in socio-economic trends to be seen across Canada and far beyond the higher education sector—the increase in the hierarchical divisions of the workforce, the proliferation of insecure, part-time jobs and ever-increasing attacks on living standards. And universities themselves are no longer the oak-panelled ivory towers of centuries past. Broader layers of the population have gained access to institutions of higher learning—albeit by incurring massive debt loads—as western economies continue to move away from traditional industrial manufacture to a more "value added" occupational base. But even these more highly-skilled occupations are becoming evermore "proletarianized."  The increasing use of contract faculty in place of tenured professors is simply the expression of this trend on the campuses themselves.

Whilst intellectuals are increasingly re-processed as educational workers, the university itself is becoming more dependent on big business in the form of corporate sponsorships, commercialized research, and targeted private donations that have all proliferated with the decline in state support over the past generation. Because of business pressure and, more generally, the rightward shift amongst the most privileged sections of society, university administrations have become more conservative. Moreover, the recent stock market meltdown, which has depleted endowments and pension fund investments that provide substantial funding sources to the universities, will only exacerbate the already quickening pace of class conflict on the campuses.  

There are other broad issues at stake in the York University strike. Whilst the union has demanded a two year deal, the university has offered a three year contract. Officials in the provincial office of CUPE have been angling for a province-wide bargaining process at the universities similar to one that already exists with Ontario school boards. Obtaining a two-year deal at York would move one of the largest universities onto the same 2010 bargaining window in which the lion's share of contracts at other universities expire, and provide the union with added bargaining clout.  Moreover, it would provide fuel for the union's argument that such centralized, "pattern" arrangements should be extended throughout the public sector.

The Liberal provincial government of Dalton McGuinty is opposed to this strategy, despite union assurances that the province would benefit from "cost savings" won through a rationalization of the bargaining process. Said the Minister for Colleges and Universities, John Milloy, "I respect the autonomy of the institutions when it comes to universities." Milloy's claims of respecting institutional "autonomy" notwithstanding, there has been speculation that the provincial Liberals have made it known to the York administration that a two-year deal would not sit well with the Premier.

A more overt intervention by the Ontario government against the strikers cannot be excluded, since they recently served notice to hospitals, universities and school boards that they should plan for a new period of restraint in government funding. A group of right-wing students, no doubt covertly encouraged by the administration, has set up a website to campaign for the government to break the strike through emergency back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration.

St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, employed a similar strategy after it locked out its full- and part-time faculty last December. Senior university personnel actively incited the student council to "independently" oppose the faculty's contract demands and demand an immediate end to any job action.   

The Toronto Star, for decades a staunch ally of the Liberal Party, was quick off the mark in trying to isolate the York University strikers in the court of public opinion. It published an editorial last week that commended the university administration's offer as "in line with the tough economic times" and urged the union to accept it. Of course, the editorial board, while denouncing a 5.5 per cent yearly wage increase for teaching assistants as unreasonable, failed to mention the huge pay hikes recently given some senior administrators. These include a 112 per cent increase in compensation for university Dean Harvey Skinner, a 20 per cent raise for Associate Dean Asia Weiss and a 16 per cent raise for Dean Robert Drummond.   

A reporting team from the World Socialist Web Site recently interviewed strikers on the picket lines at the main York campus in north Toronto.

Megan, a political science teaching assistant (TA) in her sixth year, commented on the impact of the developing economic crisis on the dispute. "Well I'm not sure if it will affect the outcome of the strike, because we've been advocating these demands long before it came up, but the universities are like businesses these days, only worried about making profit. It really isn't a coincidence that the programs which receive less funding are the liberal arts and humanities, because they inspire critical thinking of the world. Meanwhile business schools, law schools get a lot more—private, obviously—funding, because they're the ones that don't question the structure. Even so, it wasn't some alien force that just installed the capitalist system—after all, it's a human construction, it didn't just fall from the sky. 

"Once we actually realize that we're all equally affected by the policies of the current socio-economic order, maybe things will change. Unfortunately, getting people to understand and make connections is very difficult to do, and it also depends how people will interpret the causes of the recession."

Gary Gary, a picket captain with six years experience as a TA, added, "To those people who would say we shouldn't be bargaining in a time like this, we'd say that in 2001, the last year that we had a contract dispute with the university, that wasn't in the middle of a financial collapse so there was no reason that the university couldn't deal with us fairly. I don't know what excuse they were giving to the union at the time, but they kept us out for 11 weeks, and now they're saying there's a massive financial crisis, a so-called liquidity crisis in the States so we should give in for precisely that reason. And we say, well that's unfortunate that there is this crisis, but at the same time our demands have been up there for years. Since 2005 we've had a 30 percent increase in our membership and we haven't had proper funding to reflect that increase in our membership."

ChristineChristine is in the sixth year of her PhD and has been a TA for six years in the faculty of fine arts. She explained further, "They have increased enrolment over the last three years, which has been the length of our latest contract, 30 percent, so our union [membership] has increased 30 percent, but the administration hasn't increased the size of the funds to accommodate the increased enrolment. So we have access to less money for childcare, for PhD completion funds, bursaries; you know there's just less money to go around. Last summer people didn't get bursaries because the reserves were empty because of the increased enrolment. All we are asking for is for a fair distribution of funds."

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