Volume 63, Issue 3: May/June 2009

York University’s get of jail free card

Rewards and consequences of bad-faith bargaining

illustration by Galen Johnson

The longest university strike in English Canada came to an unhappy end on January 29, 2009, in a manner that should send a wake-up call to an entire labour movement already on the defensive. After 85 days on the picket line in an effort to reverse the trend towards casualized teaching in post-secondary institutions, the contract professors and graduate-student workers of CUPE 3903 were legislated back to work by a Liberal-Conservative coalition. One by one, MPPs stood up to vote for Bill 145, as picketers outside could be heard singing the words, “we’ll not stand for this.” Within days, there were reports of imminent legislation forcing Ottawa transit workers back on the job. Within a week, 70,000 elementary school teachers accepted a tentative agreement after being told to “watch the situation at York very closely.”

And the situation at York — like other universities in this country — is moving in a very troubling direction. In the face of chronic under-funding, successive administrations raise tuition and their own salaries instead of demanding that the province provide the necessary support. The factory model of education has become increasingly institutionalized and accepted: pump as many “units” through the degree machine as possible while making every effort to undermine the tenure system by replacing full-time professors with flexible “part-timers.” And with the language of “hard economic times” in tow, President Mamdouh Shoukri’s relentlessly neoliberal administration managed to avoid addressing the educational crisis it helped create. Instead, York refused to bargain seriously with the union, cancelled all classes for the duration of the strike in order to build pressure from students and their parents, and then dared the province not to step in. The union’s demands were centered around four key areas:

  1. the creation of new, five-year teaching positions for long service contract faculty and the protection of rates of conversions from contract teaching into the tenure stream;

  2. improvements to the overall funding packages offered to teaching and graduate assistants;

  3. indexation of benefits to their 2005 levels to reflect growth in the union’s membership; and

  4. a two-year contract in order to join an effort by CUPE Ontario to coordinate bargaining for all locals in the sector.

The demands around job security for contract faculty and conversions into tenure were at the heart of the strike, and reflected a growing recognition that decent long-term teaching positions are being eroded and replaced by an army of underpaid Ph.D.s at Canada’s third-largest university.

Despite a number of disadvantages, internal fissures and inconsistent support from its national wing, CUPE 3903 did not, by any means, “lose” the strike. Over half of the membership remained actively involved in the strike, even into its third cold month. In that third month, with pressure mounting in the press, from students and outspoken anti-strike faculty, the employer forced a ratification vote on an offer that was not too different from the one rejected in November — and still an emphatic majority voted “no.” In fact, it was clear that York’s top brass expected the union to crumble in that late January vote. The president scheduled his first press conference of the strike for immediately after the vote, no doubt hoping to cash in on an opportunity to show that the union’s leaders were “out of touch” with the membership.

How embarrassing for Shoukri when his press conference turned into a spontaneous celebration for union activists! When York’s security thugs had successfully shoved all of the cheering workers out of the room, Shoukri’s comments surprised even the most conservative reporters: “We will not be going back to the bargaining table.” Huh? For a president who had already been criticized for his invisibility during the strike, refusing to go back to the table seemed like a major strategic blunder when York’s bargaining team only negotiated for nine days during the entire strike.

This was the turning point in the strike. The membership pledged its support for the direction the leadership had taken, the union made it clear that they would not be bullied into taking a sub-par offer, and the employer was all out of tricks. Most observers recognized that, if the strike continued much more than another couple of weeks, the university would be forced to cancel its summer sessions and forego all of the tuition cheques that come with it. Given that tuition fees currently represent 37 per cent of York’s annual operating budget, canceling semesters was a pill that the university simply could not afford to swallow. After nearly three months, the union’s real leverage was finally about to be felt, and the employer would have no choice but to negotiate in good faith to bring the strike to an end in order to secure its tuition dollars.

Or so it would have been, if Ontario’s Liberal premier, Dalton McGuinty, hadn’t handed York’s president a “get out of jail free” card. The appointment of a new mediator — a charade initiated in order to give back-to-work legislation the necessary legitimacy — sent a signal to the university that their problem was about to be solved. And that signal was received; after two days of bargaining, during which the union significantly reduced its proposals, mediator Reg Pearson admitted that it seemed the employer was “sitting back and waiting for back-to-work legislation.” This candid admission was part of a dramatic attempt to sway the union’s leadership into voluntarily submitting to binding arbitration, but his patronizing polemic fooled few and only highlighted how important the struggle had become at Queen’s Park.

To no one’s surprise, York never came back to the table. In the ensuing week, the university got hammered in the press consistently for the first time in the strike. Under pressure in the legislature from the NDP, the premier even placed a phone call to President Shoukri asking him to return to the table to try to reach an agreement before the legislation passed. Shoukri’s refusal was an embarrassing slap in the face to McGuinty. No amount of spin could hide the fact that it was the employer, not the union, undermining the process. Which makes the end result that much more significant and troubling. If a union can be legislated back to work simply because the employer refuses to bargain, where does that leave an already embattled labour movement in the throes of a capitalist crisis? Workers are supposed to be legally protected against employers that bargain in bad faith or make only superficial efforts to negotiate; what good are these laws if the state will step in and write new laws to bail out delinquent employers? If this is the new climate in which labour must operate, efforts like that of CUPE Ontario to organize coordinated bargaining on a provincial level may be a crucial step in building the political will to defy such legislation and to sustain a more militant round of class struggle.

Click here to visit Tyler McCreary’s take on the York University Strike

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