York students hit again, says Star

Ontario’s economic future depends on a highly educated workforce. All the more regrettable, then, that 50,000 students find themselves without classes because of a strike at York University, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 7 in an editorial.

Classes were cancelled on Thursday after 3,350 teaching assistants and contract faculty walked off the job. Everyone involved must guard against letting this disintegrate into the type of bitter battle that left York University students suffering through disrupted classes during an 11-week strike in 2001.

The two sides remain far apart. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903 says it was "forced" on strike because the University wouldn’t agree to an 11 per cent wage hike over two years, enhanced benefits and more job security. The University says the union’s overall demands add up to a "totally unrealistic" 41 per cent hike.

Union representatives say they’ll resume negotiations when the University makes a "serious offer". In fact, the University’s final offer of 9.25 per cent over three years and other improvements was serious enough for two other campus groups – maintenance workers and clerical staff – who ratified similar contracts.

Given those recent settlements, and the fact that York’s teaching assistants already earn the highest wage in Canada, the latest offer seems in line with the tough economic times. The University’s proposal to settle the dispute through binding arbitration also seems a reasonable way to bring a quick close to this strike. The union has refused.

It’s difficult to see how CUPE hopes to win public sympathy or do better for its members by keeping 50,000 students out of their classes.

  • Students and striking workers at York University, the country’s third-largest postsecondary institution, are bracing for what could be prolonged labour disruptions reminiscent of an 11-week strike eight years ago, wrote The Globe and Mail Nov. 7.

The campus was a ghost town yesterday, the first day of the strike by contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate students, with classes for more than 50,000 students cancelled and pickets letting cars onto University grounds only every few minutes.

There are no plans to resume negotiations, wrote the Globe.

Christina Rousseau, chair of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, said the striking workers are waiting for a signal from University administrators that they are ready to return to talks. "Right now the ball is in their court," she said. "We feel it is their turn to make a move."

The University has offered a 9.25 per cent wage increase over three years. A University spokesperson said the administration is willing to go to binding arbitration.

The workers have asked for a two-year contract with a wage increase of 11 per cent over that period. The demand for a two-year deal is part of a broader strategy by CUPE Ontario to coordinate bargaining on all Ontario campuses in order to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

The provincial union executive would like to bargain contracts with the province in 2010, but the province yesterday rejected such a notion. "Universities are autonomous," said John Milloy, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. "We have a strong partnership with them but at the end of the day they have the authority and responsibility to make their own decisions. That’s the structure that has been in place for generations and I think it has worked well."

The same union local was involved in the bitter 11-week strike at York in 2000-2001, the longest ever at a Canadian university.

Yesterday, the few students wandering around campus showed little sympathy for striking workers. "We don’t feel for them," said Annie Messerkhanian, a second-year law student who lives on campus. Standing beside her, a student who identified himself only as Victor called the strike "annoying". "The concept that academic integrity at the school is affected such that the school has to be shut down is absurd," the 23-year-old law student said.

On the picket lines, workers said job security and wages drove them to endorse the strike.

Maggie Breau, a teaching assistant, said she makes $1,000 a month and most of that goes toward rent. "Today is going to be so embarrassing to the new administration that they’re going to want to rethink this," Breau said. "But on the other hand, we’re sort of seen as on the cutting edge of the industry…. What happens here is usually reflected in other universities when their contracts come up, so we want to make sure that we get a good one for everybody."

Sitting on the lawn watching fellow pickets, contract faculty member Colette Granger worried that it would be another long strike. She was a teaching assistant during the last one. Granger teaches three courses in York’s Faculty of Education, but works two days a week at a writing centre at the University of Toronto to pay her bills and student loans. Along with a wage increase, she wants job security so that people like her don’t have to reapply for the same jobs every semester. "I feel as though it’s up to the employer now, because here we are. This is sort of our big thing. I feel as though it’s up to them," she said.

  • A strike by part-time workers has turned York University into a virtual ghost town at the height of the November midterm crunch, with all classes cancelled, assignments postponed and pickets letting cars onto campus only every few minutes, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 7.

"To be honest, like most students I like having a couple of days to catch up on my sleep," said first-year student Krupa Shah, who commutes from Richmond Hill. "But it’ll suck if the school semester or year gets pushed into our vacation. I just got through the Viva transit strike last month (of York Region’s rapid bus system). What a way to start university."

No new talks are scheduled. Both sides say it is up to the other to make the first move. York says it is waiting for CUPE to agree to binding arbitration, something CUPE rejects. But chief union negotiator Graham Potts says he "would go back to the table in a heartbeat if York put a serious offer on the table."

Rebutting accusations that the union is "just strike-happy and want our day in the sun," union official Sharon Davidson said "that’s simply not the case. We know what’s at stake and this situation doesn’t look good on York."

A 78-day strike in 2001 did not close down classes but caused enough disruption that York cancelled reading week so students could make up work. This time, University officials say they would consider stretching the first semester into January, if needed, and add time at the end of the year.

CUPE has rejected the University’s latest offer, presented Tuesday, which includes a wage hike of 9.25 per cent over three years, improved dental and health benefits and paid leaves – an offer York officials have said matches other settlements across the public sector.

A York CUPE local representing custodians, maintenance and grounds workers ratified a three-year deal this week with the same wage hike. The York University Staff Association, which represents clerical workers, also approved a similar agreement.

CUPE 3903 is seeking an 11 per cent wage hike over two years, plus stronger health benefits and more job security for long-term contract teachers.

While York’s teaching assistants are believed to be the highest paid in Canada – at about $17,386 a year for roughly 10 hours of teaching a week – union officials said their wages still fall below the poverty line. "There is no percentage in being the highest paid workers in a poorly paid sector," said teaching assistant Punam Khosla. As for contract faculty, Khosla said they are paid about $14,000 per course that they design, teach and mark – some teach as many as five courses – whereas tenured professors earn an average of about $80,000 a year yet typically teach no more than three courses.

As well, contract professors must reapply every semester for their job, even if they have been working for 10 to 15 years. The union wants the University to restore a five-year contract for longer-term contract faculty that was scrapped in 2001.

"Yes, we know about funding cuts and the hard economic times, but the University has seen the provincial government put more money into universities, tuition fees have been rising and everyone knows when the economy falls, the number of people who enrol in university goes up," said Khosla. "The University is in a unique position to be able to count on growing revenue from increased enrolment."

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk, director of media relations, said that when all the union’s demands are factored in, the increase it is seeking amounts to a "totally unrealistic" 41 per cent hike. "We are disappointed with this interruption in educating our students for the future," Bilyk said.

The University says provincial funding shortfalls have forced it to plan cuts of 2 per cent to the operating budget for each of the next three years.

  • Rich, a 21-year-old student at York University, said that he stands to lose a lot if the strike continues, wrote The Toronto Sun Nov. 7. "If we lose the time, obviously I’m learning less than what I paid for," he said. "I’m not getting the information from lectures but they’re going to put it on the exam, so then it’s up to me to learn it by myself."

Second-year student Ashley Lunan said a prolonged strike at the University will have a greater impact on those close to graduating. "Just about everyone says it’s going to set them back a semester to a year," Lunan said. The 19-year-old student, who lives on campus, said it will be more difficult to get groceries because transit won’t pass through the picket lines and onto the campus. "Food shops around here close in the early evening, so that means grocery shopping will be a bit of a walk and then there’s the carrying it all back," she said.

But it’s not just the students who have lots to lose. While the picketing workers said they are living below the poverty line and can’t afford to strike, they believe the quality of education will improve when teaching assistants receive a better wage. "I believe in accessibility to education and, obviously, funding is a huge barrier," said a 27-year-old graduate student, who didn’t want to be identified. "It’s about setting a standard that says we value the people teaching the courses."

"We’re not doing it out of fun, it’s affecting our school year, too," said Healy Thompson, 27, a PhD student and a teaching assistant. "I’m an international student and I’m only allowed to work on campus, so these 10 hours I work teaching. I hope, in the end, we get a funding package that gets us to at least the poverty line."

  • "They forced our hand in this," said Graham Potts, chief negotiator for CUPE 3903, wrote The Toronto Sun Nov. 7. "We didn’t feel with the agreement that they had on offer that we had any choice. They’re now in for a fight that we’re prepared to win."

The University said the union’s latest wage demand was an 11 per cent increase over two years, plus increases in income support programs for grad students and teaching assistants. In addition to the 9.25 per cent wage hike, York has also offered  improvements in dental and vision benefits and in paid leaves.

The union said that if 900 contract faculty are teaching 5.5 courses, they’re making $75,000 a year with no job security and no contract going beyond eight months compared to tenured faculty teaching three courses and earning around $85,000. "We do not understand why the University will not…address our serious concerns about job security for people who have been teaching 15, 20, 25 years and they have to re-apply for their jobs every four months," Potts said. "It’s absolutely atrocious how the University treats them."

York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk said yesterday that there is no date for the next round of talks but the University is sticking to its offer. "Teaching assistants are among the highest paid in Canada and that’s before the 9.25 per cent offer…at $62.39 an hour including compensation packages," he said. "What the union is requesting, the benefits, the additional time…what they’re really asking is a 42 per cent increase over two years. That’s unreasonable."

Pickets went up at 9am yesterday with a few hundred union members blocking traffic along Keele Street. They began letting vehicles into the campus after a two-minute wait each, while workers handed out leaflets explaining their strike position. The pickets will run from 7am until 7pm each day.

Some motorists were annoyed with the hold up but many were sympathetic. "I’ve been through several strikes here before so I’m used to it," said Yvonne Shirley, registration assistant at York’s Schulich Executive Education Centre. "They’re asking for certain things they need to survive. If they have to strike to do it, I’m not going to fight down anybody."

Students were frustrated classes were cancelled with exam time approaching next month and TTC buses were halted from entering school grounds. "It’s a huge pain," said Jennifer Therrien, 18, an international development student. "I understand that they’re under the poverty line right now but 50,000 students are being affected from it. We pay money too and where does it go?"

Bilyk said the straight cancellation of classes was "for fairness to the students," but he would not speculate if students would be reimbursed for a lost semester or additional housing costs. "We’re hopeful that an agreement will be reached earlier."

  • Bob Drummond, dean of York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke on Toronto’s CFRB and CHUM-FM radio, and on Ottawa’s CFRA Radio Nov. 6. Alex Bilyk spoke on CFMT-TV, CTV, City-TV, Global TV, Radio Canada (Toronto), CBC Radio (Toronto) and OMNI-TV Nov. 6. Students were interviewed for their reactions on CFRB, 680News Radio, CTV, CP24-TV/City-TV and Global TV Nov. 6.
  • Graham Potts spoke on Toronto’s 680News Radio, CFMT-TV, CTV, CP24-TV/City-TV and Global TV Nov. 6. Christina Rousseau spoke on Global TV, City-TV, Classical 96.3 Radio, XM Radio, CKNX in Wingham, and on CIIX, the campus radio station of London’s Fanshawe College.
  • Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, spoke on Global TV and CFRB Radio Nov. 6 and Scott McLean, assistant news editor of Excalibur, spoke on CBC Radio Nov. 6.
  • A number of York graduate students were also interviewed on various television and radio stations Nov. 6, including David Blocker, Datejie Green, Robert Paugh, Punam Khosla, Xavier Lafrance, and Glendon graduate student Alban Bargain-Villeger.

Ontario dismisses combined contract bargaining for province’s universities

Coordinated bargaining for all universities across Ontario is not being considered by the province despite a second university going out on strike since the school year began, the government said Thursday, wrote The Canadian Press Nov. 6.

Some 3,400 contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants walked off the job at York University in Toronto after the midnight deadline passed.

Union officials have argued for a provincewide bargaining process similar to the one used with school boards but the minister responsible for colleges and universities said that isn’t going to happen.

“I respect the autonomy of the institutions when it comes to our universities,” said John Milloy. “I’m confident that both sides are going to work to find an agreement that’s in the best interests of the students at York.”

The province could save time and money through combined bargaining, said Fred Hahn, secretary-treasurer for the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“It’s the same idea we’re talking about for universities…that we think would be good for the entire broader public sector quite honestly,” said Hahn.

The same thing happens at Ontario hospitals, and could be applied to nursing homes and social services agencies, he noted. “There could be great cost-efficiencies held just by having some kind of provincial bargaining structure.”

In the current economic climate, it’s not just public sector workers that bear the burden of fiscal belt-tightening, Hahn said. “The government has to start to think about ways of doing things differently,” he said. “The provincial government has a great role to play in developing efficiencies and saving resources.”

Christina Rousseau, chair of CUPE Local 3903, which represents the striking York workers, conceded her members are better off than most in Canada but doesn’t feel that combined bargaining would negatively impact them.

“If we could use our status as having one of the better agreements to help make other locals in the sector better, I think it’s something we can do,” said Rousseau. “It’s the best out of a bunch of collective agreements that are nowhere near adequate.”

Milloy wouldn’t speculate on how much time the sides at York might have to reach a deal before considering any back-to-work order. But Hahn insisted combined bargaining has been shown to expedite the process. “Local unions that might spend a year at the table have been able to reach agreements in two months,” said Hahn.

In September, more than 1,000 professors, librarians and part-time teachers went on strike at the University of Windsor. That delayed the start of classes for some 16,000 students for more than two weeks, meaning the fall semester had to be extended.

There’s concern an extended strike at York could extend classes into the summer. Dave Tovee, 24, a fourth-year York geography student from Huntsville, Ont., worried about the job prospects for graduating students. “It could really jeopardize their chances of coming out with the field of graduates from other schools,” said Tovee.

The striking workers at York are seeking an 11 per cent wage increase over two years, compared to the 9.25 per cent hike over three years being offered.

“But when you look at the wages and benefits packages together, it actually ends up being 2.3 that they’re offering us per year,” Rousseau said.

The Windsor agreement included a nine per cent wage hike over three years.

York graduate assistant Dave Blocker, 24, said he and his peers get between $10,000 and $14,000 for the year, which isn’t enough. “Based on what I’m getting from York, I’d be living well below the poverty line,” Blocker said. “When you subtract the tuition payment of some $5,000 for the year, that leaves virtually nothing to live on…especially when you’re trying to live in Toronto.”

Local energy initiatives in spotlight

Two university students have plenty of ideas to take back to Armenia after two days of learning about an array of environmental initiatives in Perth County, wrote the Stratford Beacon Herald Nov. 6 in a story about a York University program aimed at initiating intellectual exchange between scientists in Canada and Armenia.

Maro Kochinyan and Tatevik Amazyan toured local schools and businesses that are embracing environmental programs. Yesterday afternoon, at Factory 163, they learned more about energy conservation and environmental protection, as speakers discussed county programs that are making a difference.

Among the unique ideas discussed at the inaugural Sustainability Showcase was the new Green Renewal Initiative Perth (GRIP) program, which over the next year will investigate the need for a countywide environmental organization. York graduate student Kerry McManus, a consultant for GRIP, talked about new and upcoming initiatives – the Turn on the Tap program and the How Bright is Your Lighting Plan, both facilitated through GRIP.

York strikes again – in soccer

York University’s soccer program received a huge boost for the second time in 48 hours, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 7. Francesco Bruno, a third-year midfielder with the Lions, yesterday was named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s soccer player of the year.

A day earlier, York striker Stefania Morra was picked as the top female university soccer player in the country.

Bruno had a team-high 10 goals in 14 league games for the Ontario University Athletics finalists, who lost to Laurier 1-0 in overtime. He was also named a first-team all-Canadian for the second consecutive year.

For one of the rare times this year, Bruno was held scoreless yesterday as York beat Victoria 3-0 on the opening day of the Canadian Interuniversity national playoffs in Ottawa.

Hormones key to solving ‘short stature’: study

Growth hormone treatment may add more than eight centimetres to a short child’s final height, with some children gaining nearly 20 centimetres, Swedish researchers are reporting, wrote the Ottawa Citizen Nov. 7.

But Dr. Joel Lexchin questions whether the children in the Swedish study were followed long enough to detect side effects that might take longer to develop. "You have to decide whether or not this is the way you want to deal with these short stature" children, says Lexchin, who teaches in York’s School of Health Policy & Management, Faculty of Health. "Do you want to treat people with drugs to make them conform to what’s socially acceptable?"

Professor helps advisers learn from history

For people in or near retirement, Moshe Milevsky compares the recent financial meltdown to being the only people on a block whose house has burned down and they don’t have insurance, wrote the Edmonton Journal Nov. 7. "There really is nothing to do now, the calamity has struck, and you have to start and build again," said Milevsky, a finance professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, and author of the recent book Are You a Stock or a Bond?

"There is a small group of individuals out there who were caught in this perfect storm – they’re about to withdraw money, they were too heavily invested in equities, they did not have any other product like annuities – then the storm hit and the portfolio melted down. It would be a huge waste if these peoples’ stories didn’t get out there, if people forgot about this."

Milevsky has been touring Canada explaining to financial advisers the workings of a new software program called Product Allocation for Retirement Income, that he and the Quantitative Wealth Management Analytics Group of university-based professionals have developed for Manulife Financial. It is available to financial advisers through Manulife Investments’ online Retirement Solutions Centre.

His group studied various components of retirement and designed mathematical equations to produce the software program.

Milevsky laments that the compensation system in the financial industry causes advisers to push products "that make a living for them," instead of one-time investments like immediate annuities and SPIA (Single Premium Immediate Annuity) products. "For a certain group, I feel we almost need a socialized financial system. If we continue to see people aging and transitioning into retirement with very little assistance, there should be some place they can go to get free investment advice. In the UK they’ve experimented with it. "We’re not talking about people making $80,000 a year, we’re talking about a segment of the community that never will be served by the financial community because it’s not lucrative enough."

On air

  • News of the funeral of York student Atena Arabsalmany was broadcast on Barrie’s A-Channel TV, Nov. 6.