The Strike at York University

A sign of the times

We are delighted to offer this piece in memory of Ellen Meiksins Wood, who sadly passed away on January 14, 2016. In this piece Ellen expands from direct experience of a 1979 strike at York University that marked an “impressive victory” for labour, explaining the nature of universities within a capitalist state. It is striking how many parallels can be drawn with today, but what becomes remarkably clear is Ellen’s sharp mind and critical insights into the nature of capitalism and socialist struggle. This piece was scanned and reformatted from the Canadian Dimension print archives in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory, by magazine editorial collective member Matthew Brett.

WHEN JUST UNDER ONE thousand clerical and technical workers at one Toronto university go on strike, the Canadian economy is not shaken to its foundations. The number of people directly affected by the strike, even as a minor nuisance, is small; and indirect effects on people outside the university community are negligible. Still, a strike like the recent one at York University is as significant as many more dramatic labour disputes.

University strikes have been increasing recently and show every sign of continuing to spread. Since they involve a section of the workforce which is most difficult to organize and has been least inclined to militancy, the meaning of this development has to be explored, and questions must be raised about the university’s role in the modern capitalist economy.


On September 18, 1978, after months of negotiation and mediation during which the administration showed little sign of movement, the York University Staff Association went on strike. The administration had offered an increase in total compensation of 4% - including benefits as well as wages – and refused to concede even the most minimal job security provisions which have become standard in most private and public enterprises.

The staff, consisting of badly paid clerical and technical workers the majority of whom are women, only recently organized and unaccustomed to union activity, voted to strike by a vote of 76% of the 795 members present at the strike-vote meeting. The administration had clearly believed that they were dealing with a docile and disorganized work-force composed mainly of housewives working for “pin-money”; and the effectiveness of the strike took them by surprise. A few days after the strike began, negotiations resumed and the job security issue was resolved.

Talks broke down again over the compensation package. The strike continued even more effectively than before, and morale remained high despite attempts by the administration to undermine support, for example, by placing misleading $5,000 advertisements in Toronto’s major newspaper. Many faculty members cancelled classes in support of the strike - including all of Atkinson College, the evening faculty whose students are largely part-time, and even for a while the law school. After just over two weeks of the strike, and informal intervention by the provincial government, the administration presented an offer of 7.2% plus benefits. The offer was accepted by a vote of 72% of approximately 580 members present, and the strike ended on October 3rd.

The settlement was not a particularly generous one, but there can be little doubt that YUSA won an impressive victory. It must be pointed out that the issues went beyond the immediate demands of the union. It was clear to many people that the power of all the unions at the university was at stake, and that YUSA was fighting for the whole university community. It also helped to establish the unions as an effective force in the university.

The effectiveness of the strike is impressive for a number of reasons. First, most members of the union had no experience of union activity and a great many even had no background of sympathy for the labour movement. There were people on the picket lines - among then some of the most conscientious and effective picketers - who spoke of the real hostility they had often felt for workers on strike, for example, when their children’s secondary schools were shut down by a teachers’ strike or when Toronto’s transit service was disrupted. Although it is doubtful that many were prepared to draw far-reaching conclusions about the nature of capitalist society and the position of workers in it, this was clearly a strike in which attitudes were changed by the experience itself.


The strike was a difficult one also because of the peculiar nature of the university community and the attitudes of those - especially faculty and students - on whom YUSA had to rely for support. The faculty was divided. A large minority - but still a minority - strongly supported the strike and cancelled classes, many of them joining the picket lines.

Some held classes off campus. Another group refused to cancel classes, but chose to support the strike in other ways, with money or time on the picket lines. Some “sympathized” with the strike but rejected this kind of “industrial” action, on the grounds that the university was a different (superior?) kind of institution. Of the faculty members who openly opposed the strike, a number actually engaged in strikebreaking, organizing students to do the work of switchboard operators or library and bookstore staffs, and intimidating their junior faculty colleagues. As is to be expected in a community of this kind, a lot of moralizing went on. Those who crossed the picket line spoke of their responsibility to their students; and if a picketing colleague claimed an equal sense of responsibility, arguing that the more support YUSA received the sooner the strike would end, or that the future of the university depended on the successful outcome of the strike, someone would up the ante – for example, by invoking a higher commitment to the life of the mind.

While all these moral attitudes were being struck, it is not difficult to imagine what YUSA members thought as they watched people, for whom they had performed innumerable services and who would expect them to do so again after the strike, cross the picket line.


The most disturbing aspect of the strike was the attitude of students. While an effective but small minority supported the strike by boycotting classes, joining picket lines or a sit-in in the President’s office, many students showed no understanding of the strike at all and seemed, in varying degrees, to put their own short-term convenience above anything else.

A very common attitude among students seems to have been: “I paid my fees. How dare you do this to me?” Some students expressed their hostility more dramatically by driving cars recklessly and at high speed through the picket lines, not without causing injury. It was hard not to draw contrasts with student activists of earlier years, to speculate about whether this was a significant sign of the times, or to wonder how much responsibility could be laid at the door of panic in a time of economic hardship and high unemployment.

There are no doubt important lessons to be drawn from the actions and attitudes of all the parties concerned, but the wider implications of the strike cannot be understood without looking at the nature and function of the university in modern capitalism.


During the strike, one was constantly being told - by the President of the university who went on radio to say it, by faculty colleagues who stopped to chat as they crossed the picket line - that the “industrial model” of labour relations was not appropriate to the university. It was a pity, they said, that the academic community lacked the imagination to devise alternative methods. This, of course, missed the whole point of the YUSA strike. No one chooses the “industrial model,” not even in industry.

The “model” is imposed by the nature of the social relations which are the basis of our economic system. The significant thing about the university situation is that it illustrates how the logic of the system imposes itself on all institutions, however far removed they may seem from the vital centre of the capitalist economy, its purposes and values.

The fact is that universities are run according to the principles that govern the organization of production and distribution in capitalism generally. The logic of university administration IS the logic of production for profit, with principles of accounting derived from that system of production. Furthermore, the university responds to the needs of capital outside its walls, and administration policies are often governed by the university’s functions in servicing those needs.

This does not mean simply that university administrators have certain “hard-headed” or “business-like” attitudes about revenues and expenditures. More significantly, it means that the university work-force – the non-teaching staff and increasingly teachers as well – are treated as though the object of university administration, like that of industrial management, were to extract maximum surplus-value from workers. If the “industrial model” of labour relations in gaining ground in the university with the growing unionization of teaching and nonteaching staffs, it is because the actual relationship between administration and staff has assumed an “industrial” shape.

This “industrial” logic is not just a consequence of the fact that university boards of governors are dominated by corporate representatives who cannot discard the mentality of the executive boardroom - although it is certainly true that university boards are often microcosms of the Canadian corporate world, and none more so than York’s. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the university seems to be treated by its own professional administrators partly as an exploitable resource and partly as an industry to service capital in general.

It can, for example, be demonstrated that at York budget cuts, which have ostensibly been instituted in response to a grave financial crisis, have often not been cuts but internal transfers of funds. The administrative budget has risen dramatically while there has been a drastic decline in the proportion of the budget devoted to the essential functions of the university, those directly concerned with teaching and research and the necessary services which support them. At the same time, there has been pressure to distribute the funds allocated to the academic budget in ways which conform to the research and educational needs of business corporations. Especially when revenues become scarce, the administration seeks to restructure the academic program to give the advantage to such areas of research and training - for example, professional faculties and certain kinds of science at the expense of other fields.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that university administrators, responding to external forces, often cooperate with governments in cutting the university’s revenues. It then becomes the object of administrative policy to ensure that the cuts do not fall on the administration itself, and to increase its control of the university for the purposes of “rationalizing” the academic programme.


The function and fortunes of the university must be seen in the context of the economy as a whole and the part played by the state and public spending in the, modern capitalist economy.

Although governments like to represent the problems of the university as merely the consequence of demographic changes, there is clearly more to it than that. In fact, there is evidence that the Ontario government, for example, has encouraged if not actually created the present so-called enrollment crisis. It has certainly done little to ease access to university education and has, precisely during this alleged demographic slump, adopted new policies on grants and loans to students which have actually reduced the availability of higher education. Decreased enrollments have then become an excuse for curtailing expenditures on universities.

It is no coincidence that university expansion occurred during a period when the public sector of the economy generally grew in response to the needs of business corporations. It is also no accident that the universities are facing a crisis when the public sector generally is under attack. The reasons for the university’s problems must be sought in the function of the public sector in today’s capitalist economy.

It should by now be an accepted fact that growth of the public sector has taken place in response to the needs of capital. The state has intervened in a variety of ways to facilitate capital accumulation or what is more popularly known as profit maximization. It has managed the fluctuations of the “business cycle,” increasing effective demand for the goods and services supplied by private capital. It has undertaken or subsidized services necessary to the functioning of giant corporations, transportation, basic resource industries, training and research. And it has maintained social stability not only by coercion but by social welfare measure.

Capital’s need for an expanding public sector has certainly not declined in this period of economic difficulty. If anything, the need is greater than ever. At the same time, however, the very expansion made necessary by the process of capital accumulation has apparently become, in this period of “crisis” and continuing inflation, an obstacle to that process. State expenditures together with the wage-claims of labour - are thus identified by the capitalist class as the cause, rather than the effect, of its problems. The state, therefore, must satisfy capital’s contradictory demands for both expansion and contraction of the public sector.

In a sense, the major function of the state in modern capitalism is to act as a shock-absorber, to absorb the fluctuations of the capitalist economy. In order to modify these fluctuations, the public sector has itself become a major locus of fluctuations, as the state adapts to the needs of the capitalist economy - expands and contracts, or shifts resources.

In the present situation, while the public sector as a whole cannot contract since it is needed more than ever, those parts of it which are not directly necessary to the process of expanding profits are subject to attack in favour of more necessary “infrastructural” expenditures and more direct subsidies to capital. Particularly vulnerable, of course, are social welfare programmes. Since, however, the need for social peace is as great as before, the cuts in these areas must be offset by weakening the potential opposition particularly labour unions. It becomes the business of government both to cut “nonessential” public services and to conduct a political battle against organized labour first and foremost in the public sector which it directly controls. The recent battle with CUPW is a dramatic case in point.

The fluctuations in the fortunes of educational institutions in Canada must be understood in this light. Whatever other useful functions the university performs, it has, like other public institutions, contributed to the servicing of capital. It provides essential training and research required by capital. In what it teaches, the university also legitimates the system by celebrating its values and rationalizing its behaviour. And the expansion of universities can even be regarded as a small part of the general expansion of the public sector to increase effective demand.

None of these functions, however, has been so essential or irreplaceable as to make the university safe. For one thing, some of its services to capital can be supplied by other means. Changes in immigration policies, for example, might fill the gaps left by an inadequate university system – so that skilled people could be imported, when necessary, rather than trained. And one is often tempted to think that, while there are times when the university serves the useful purpose of keeping unemployed young people off the streets and out of the labour market, there are other times when it may be more useful to let them swell the ranks of the unemployed. Perhaps it is no accident that, at a time of already high unemployment, the Ontario government responds by making higher education less rather than more accessible. This would make sense during a phase of capitalist development in which reducing the bargaining power of labour takes priority over other capitalist goals.


This brings us to the final and perhaps most important lesson to be drawn from the university strike. If one of the major functions of the state is to act as a shock-absorber for capital, there is a sense in which workers in the public sector bear the brunt of economic crisis for workers in the private sector. This may help to explain the lack of solidarity between workers in the two sectors and the weak support given to beleaguered public sector workers in what for them is a particularly bad time, when they are the direct victims of shifts in government spending and the first objects of government’s political battle against labour.

A more callous example of this attitude can hardly be imagined than Dennis (“’I’m all right, Jack”) McDermott and co.’s response to the CUPW strike. This is an extremely short-sighted and self-destructive view of the situation. Workers in the public sector cannot act as shock-absorbers forever. In particular, if the state’s effectiveness as a shock-absorber for capital depends on its ability to break the power of organized labour, the political battle against unions in the public sector is a battle against the labour movement as a whole. Public workers are only the easiest and nearest target.

The growth of labour disputes in the public sector and among white collar workers who in the past have been notable for their lack of militancy suggests that the battled has entered an important phase; and other sections of the labour movement must regard the battle as their own. Even university strikes which seem so far removed from the mainstream of the labour movement must be regarded as part of the same trend; and if there is one lesson to be learned above all from the case of YUSA, it is that no labour dispute is so insignificant in the greater scheme of things that the rest of the movement can afford to ignore it.