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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

York eats cake while union members go hungry

The university celebrates its annual gala while its workers are striking

LabourEducationSocial Movements

Toronto Police Service cordoning off CUPE’s protest. Photo courtesy the author.

For almost eight weeks, York University’s graduate teaching assistants and contract faculty have been striking for a liveable wage and fair working conditions. Yet despite the continuing efforts of CUPE 3903, the union that represents them, to bring York back to the bargaining table, the University remains unwilling to bargain in good faith. In the meantime, York hosted its annual alumni awards gala on April 3 at the Glenn Gould Studio in downtown Toronto, with the aim of celebrating York’s purported academic, financial, and leadership successes.

Outside the gala, a contingent of CUPE 3903 rank-and-file members exposed an ongoing, increasingly dire, yet manufactured crisis at York University. One member explained that they attended the rally because they were “shocked that York would go ahead and celebrate its alumni while letting its own workers and future alumni remain out in the cold.” Their message was clear: instead of providing graduate students and sessional workers a liveable wage, York’s administration has chosen to fund fiscally irresponsible capital projects, including the Markham Campus and the Sherman Health Center, as well as the recently announced medical school. The Auditor General’s report reveals that the construction of the Markham Campus and Sherman Health Center remain incomplete with York University currently spending $340 million in total on both, a whopping $66 million over budget. With the Markham campus still under construction, the odds are high that York’s administration will continue overspending on this project.

At the same time, it is implementing an austerity-driven restructuring plan designed to respond to major declines in the University’s in-year surplus, while continuing to give senior administration a 47 percent salary increase. Further, the University is engaging in increasingly hostile labour relations, with the administration publicly claiming that most courses are continuing, even though more than half the staff is on strike. This is happening alongside an ongoing internal struggle between faculty members and their deans: The former are exercising their rights to suspend courses over academic integrity concerns while an increasingly aggressive administration pressures them to continue teaching.

Further, a new draft of the York administration’s Presidential Regulation 4 (PR4), which deliberately encroaches on student autonomy and independence, is meant to undermine and supersede the agency of student-led organizations and their capacity to govern and serve their respective memberships. York administration has similarly attempted to exercise greater control over its workforce through repressive tactics towards CUPE 3903 members as well as YUFA faculty. With teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract lecturers on strike, York administration is trying to push through massive restructuring of their departments and programs, using the strike to bypass the Senate as well as other governing faculty bodies which the administration is normally required to consult.

Striking workers at York University. Photo courtesy the author.

Another tactic of repression that striking workers have been subjected to is the growing police presence at pickets, and the surveillance and monitoring of student organizations and groups, most especially supporting Palestinian liberation. Over the past year, York administration has sought to concentrate and strengthen its control over campus activities by severely punishing student-led organizations for writing statements and hosting events in solidarity with Palestine, employing tactics that often involve the Toronto Police. Prior to the strike, for example, two cops disrupted Dr. Muhannad Ayyash’s lecture on decolonization in Palestine. York University has also repeatedly silenced Palestinian student groups and breached its own CUPE members’ right to academic freedom, most recently by denouncing a toolkit circulated with the purpose of giving educational resources to TAs to help them address the ongoing genocide across Occupied Palestinian Territory in their classes.

As further evidence of the escalating nature of this hostility, picketers saw a heavy police presence at their demonstration outside the Glenn Gould Studio. Six Toronto Police cars were sent to the event in an effort to silence, surveil, and potentially criminalize union members, a tactic that is not new to the York administration. One member noted that the “use of police to surveil and intimidate its largest trade union during negotiations is becoming a pattern.” Earlier, on March 4 of this year, York University allowed Toronto police to arrest a striking worker and lay the criminal charge of Mischief under $5,000 for participating in the Charter-protected activity of picketing during a strike. This alarming new trend in the policing of workers on strike shows that York University would rather antagonize its own community than work with them in good faith to find a reasonable solution to the strike.

The administration’s antagonistic attitude also found expression in an awards ceremony held on April 3 that was meant to celebrate “alumni who exemplify the values of York.” Although York community members are overwhelmingly pro-Palestine, the awards ceremony recognized and celebrated Zionist values. The prestigious “outstanding contribution” award, given to a York alumnus who has made a significant contribution—often philanthropic—to the University went to Harry LaForme, who gave a grossly anti-Palestinian speech in which he demonized anti-colonial resistance, erased the ongoing genocide across Occupied Palestinian Territory, falsely claimed Indigenous status for Israeli settlers, and argued, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, that Zionism is compatible with Palestinian self-determination. In addition to celebrating a Zionist at its alumni awards, York University also has holding investments in Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and Amphenol and Textrol Inc., companies which are responsible for supplying weapons to Israel, despite calls from community members to divest from these holdings.

While York’s vice-chancellor, administration, and philanthropic alumni enjoy a disproportionate share of financial wealth, the workers, teachers, and students at York University remain left out in the cold, with their concerns and demands for living wages and a safe and protected educational environment going unmet. Worse still, York’s mismanagement and hostility are increasingly putting teaching assistants, contract lecturers, faculty, and students in unmanageable, and even dangerous, positions of precarity. It is time that York be held accountable by its community for these egregious violations of trust and safety.

CUPE 3903 Black Tie Collective is an anonymous union rank-and-file group.

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