Media call for end to strike

In the midst of a recession, tens of thousands of young people looking to further their education are being held hostage by the country’s most well-paid teaching assistants, who are unwilling to accept a pay increase beyond what most workers expect in the current climate, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 22 in an editorial.

The interests of organized labour have overtaken those of students. York University has now been shut down for 11 weeks only because of the needs of striking teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract workers. Equally relevant are the strategic interests of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which is trying to strengthen its hand for a show of force in 2010.

The University’s initial offer of a 9.25 per cent pay hike over three years was reasonable; its revised offer, which tacked on additional benefits and wages, was better. But that offer was rejected this week by 63 per cent of CUPE 3903 members who took part in a forced vote requested by the University. (Only 69 per cent of the 3,340 strikers voted; thus, fewer than 1,500 workers blocked 50,000 students from returning to class.) Among the union’s demands are greater job security for contract workers and more funding for graduate students. But its preference for a two-year agreement, rather than the three-year deal the University is offering, is the most telling grievance. CUPE hopes that labour agreements will expire across Ontario campuses in 2010, giving it a stronger bargaining position with the province. Since York’s generous pay is seen as a benchmark, it is a key part of the puzzle.

That strategy should be an incentive to Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario premier, to draw his own line in the sand. Forced to wade into the dispute this week after months of steering clear, McGuinty appointed mediator Reg Pearson to “bang a few heads together.” But the time for mediation is over. To discourage CUPE from shutting down more campuses when it can, the premier should heed the Opposition’s calls to promptly legislate an end to the strike.

But then, McGuinty should be acting in any case, to prevent the harm now being done to students. York University is home to many students of modest financial means. At best, most of their school year will be condensed into rushed make-up classes. In the worst cases, those with tight timelines and financial obligations may be compelled to alter their academic plans altogether.

McGuinty has tried to brand himself as the “education premier”. He should prove it by ensuring that York’s students get the education they paid for.

  • York University gambled by asking for a supervised vote to end the 11-week strike of its teaching faculty, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 22 in an editorial. Unfortunately, for the 50,000 students watching their academic year slip away, it lost the gamble.

The union, representing 3,440 teaching assistants and contract faculty, sees the result as an opportunity to extract more concessions from the University at the bargaining table. But the University says it cannot afford to give any more. The two sides appear to be at an impasse. The students already face the prospect of their classes extending into summer. They can’t wait any longer for the CUPE Local 3903 and the administration to find common ground.

The province, which has stayed out of this dispute for too long, should intervene. Recalling the MPPs from their winter break and introducing back-to-work legislation, with binding arbitration to settle the dispute, is the only certain way to end this strike. Unfortunately, Premier Dalton McGuinty seems reluctant to follow this path. Instead, the province has appointed a top mediator, Reg Pearson, to “bang a few heads together.”

This can’t hurt. But the government should be ready with legislation to end the strike if Pearson, like the mediator before him, fails to bridge the enormous gulf between the two sides. After six months of on-and-off negotiations, the union still wants a contract worth twice what the University says it can afford.

In an effort to make the case against back-to-work legislation, the government has suddenly raised the spectre of a court challenge based on a 2007 Supreme Court ruling concerning health-care workers in British Columbia. This was dismissed by Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory as “a total smokescreen”.

As was shown last year with the TTC strike, the province can legislate workers back in a matter of hours – if the opposition parties are onside. That’s unlikely to be the case this time, however. While the Progressive Conservatives would definitely support back-to-work legislation, the New Democrats would almost certainly prevent speedy passage of the bill. Depending how obstreperous the NDP wants to be, legislation could be delayed for more than a week. This makes it all the more imperative for the process to start now, for the sake of the students and the future of the University.

The prolonged strike, the second by this union in eight years, has already greatly damaged the University’s reputation. The number of high-school students picking York as their first choice for next September is down 15 per cent. If this strike continues much longer, the teaching jobs the union wants made more secure won’t be there at all.

  • The damage caused by striking staff at Toronto’s York University goes well beyond the added difficulty its 50,000 undergraduates will face in completing the academic year, wrote the National Post Jan. 22 in an editorial.

The strike, now in its third month, is hurting the image and reputation of the school, perhaps permanently. In a year when applications at Ontario universities are rising, almost 11 per cent fewer students have sought a place at York.

The strike reflects badly on the union, in particular. The 3,340 striking CUPE members rejected a pay and benefits increase of 10.7 per cent, a reasonable offer at a time when tens of thousands of Canadians face pay cuts or lost jobs. For its part, the union complains its membersincluding teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract workersmust reapply for positions each year, hardly justification for holding 50,000 students hostage.

York has long suffered a reputation for extremist, flaky politics and labour relations fixed on ideology as much as working conditions. This strike exacerbates that image problem. Classes may stretch to July, keeping students from summer jobs and internships, and preventing graduates from obtaining marks needed for further study.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty yesterday ordered the province’s top mediator to “bang a few heads together,” but has resisted back-to-work legislation. He should think again. York needs to be saved from itself.

  • It is past time that the strike at York University should end, wrote the Hamilton Spectator Jan. 22. Despite opposition howling, it is not a bad thing that Premier Dalton McGuinty is sending a top government negotiator in a last-ditch effort to end the strike. A short, sharp period of intensive bargaining may bring resolution. But if Reg Pearson is unable to bring the two sides to an agreement quickly, this mess should go to binding arbitration as soon as possible, while there is still some hope for 50,000 students to get their school year back on track. Failing that, McGuinty must be ready to step in and end this impasse.

It is not an easy thing to make such a suggestion, given that unionized workers have the right to strike to achieve their goals. But in this case, having rejected an offer that is one of the most generous in the province, it’s time for the striking workers’ interests to give way to the needs of York University students and their families.

The drop in applications leaves York with two choicesreduce the size of the coming first-year class to keep standards up or lower entrance standards to maintain that class size. Neither option is a good one for any Ontario university in these times of tight budgeting at publicly supported institutions.

The impact of this situation, though, goes beyond York University. Other universities are concerned by the relative richness of York’s final offer, which was rejected by union members this week in a supervised vote. This creates a benchmark that could make it very difficult for other universities to maintain labour peace in the next few years.

One of CUPE’s goals is to align the York University contract with other contracts on Ontario campuses to give the union more strength through province-wide bargaining, a worthy and understandable goal. But this alignment issue, one of several that continue to separate the employer and the workers, should be off the table by now. Otherwise, it is very clear that the needs of 50,000 students are not being taken seriously.

  • In a practical rather than criminal sense, York University’s 50,000 students are the victims of an ongoing fraud, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 22 in an editorial. It has been perpetrated by labour and management at York, aided yesterday by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

It’s fraud because students are not getting the education they were promised and for which they paid, in advance, in good faith. Aside from millions spent on tuition, many have also committed huge amounts of money to living expenses.

York has become a ‘hot zone’ 

In a competitive academic environment where reputation is key, York University has earned a distinction as a hot zone of labour disputes, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 22.

As a result, while other universities are recording generous increases in the number of students clamouring to fill their classrooms, York has seen applications fall by nearly 15 per cent this year.

And no wonder: Since the school’s teaching assistants, graduate and contract faculty went on strike Nov. 6, no tangible progress has been made, the University’s president has refused to return to the bargaining table, and a self-proclaimed “education premier” has only just begun to wade in.

Yesterday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that he was sending in the province’s top mediator, Reg Pearson, “to bang some heads,” providing some succour that students and parents called long overdue.

Marlee Mozeson said the past 11 weeks have seemed like an eternity. The third month of the strike at York, where she is one of nearly 50,000 students, could easily result in the loss of one full academic year. As a 20-year-old political science major who longs to travel, complete graduate school and start a career, Mozeson decries the delay.

The uncertainty of it all – the University’s empty optimism, the union’s “over-aggressive” demands – have kept Mozeson and many of her classmates from committing to a part-time job or travel plans. “It truly feels like they’re wasting my life,” she said yesterday.

Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, has passed some of the time counting. “In the past 77 days they’ve only negotiated seven days, and that is unacceptable,” he said.

Osman, who was due to graduate this spring before the strike put his plans on hold, held an open forum yesterday for students to express their frustrations.

The consensus at the meeting was that York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri‘s refusal to return to the bargaining table after union members voted to reject a proposed contract Tuesday was “not responsible”. In the vote, 63 per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ 3,300 striking members rejected York’s latest offer.

“How dare [he], as the president of York University, say that we are not going to go back to the table,” Osman said.

Although he stopped short of promising that negotiations would resume, Shoukri said Pearson introduced a “new dynamic” into the situation that he hopes will lead to a “speedy” resolution.

CUPE spokesperson Tyler Shipley also welcomed the move. “Whatever it takes to get the University to sit down at the bargaining table we will support,” he said yesterday.

McGuinty’s government has come under pressure from frustrated students, parents and Progressive Conservative MPPs to order the teaching assistants and contract faculty back to work by introducing emergency back-to-work legislation. But the premier said he has no Plan B in the event mediation fails.

The long-running strike marks a setback for McGuinty, who has made skills training, labour peace in the schools and higher education the centrepiece of his government. “This thing has gone on for so long, one could be forgiven for coming up with the impression that the two sides have lost sight of the interests of their students,” he told reporters yesterday.

Osman is hopeful that McGuinty’s intervention will keep both the University and the union at the table. “I think it’s disappointing that we’re still not back in school,” he said. “But I think Premier McGuinty’s suggestion of having his top-notch mediator go in and bang some heads is a good one. We need to get both sides to negotiate.”

  • Ontario will send in a mediator for “one more shot” at a resolution to an 11-week strike by York University staff, as some students waiting to return to class decry their “hostage” status in the ongoing labour dispute, wrote the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen Jan. 22.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said sending in a mediator to “bang a few heads together” is ideally what will bring an end to the strike, which has left the academic year for 50,000 students on pause. “This thing has gone on for so long, one could be forgiven for coming up with the impression that the two sides have lost sight of the interests of the students,” the Premier said yesterday.

Lyndon Koopmans, co-organizer of the online group, said students are frustrated by the uncertainty and worried about how they will make up for lost studying time.

“We feel like hostages in this situation and each day the consequences get worse,” Koopmans said. On Tuesday, members of CUPE 3903, which represents teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty, voted 63 per cent against York’s offer.

Tyler Shipley, CUPE 3903 spokesperson, said the union is pleased the province is appointing a mediatorReg Pearsonrather than talking about back-to-work legislation: “It indicates to us the province is willing to respect the collective bargaining process.”

  • A Liberal source said back-to-work legislation could take up to 10 days, and the courts may find such a law unconstitutional because it strips workers of their right to collective bargaining, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 22. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that such a drastic step can only be taken in cases involving essential services, administration of the state, a clear deadlock or a national crisis.
  •  A top provincial mediator was appointed Wednesday to “bang a few heads together” in a last-ditch effort to end a strike that’s left 50,000 York University students in academic limbo, with some fearing they have been forgotten amid the stalled labour dispute, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 21.

The workers will continue to strike until they receive a fair contract, a union spokesperson said, a day after members rejected an “inadequate” offer. Canadian Union of Public Employees spokesman Tyler Shipley said he supports the move. “There are some heads at that table that need to be knocked,” he said. “We’ve been trying with this University to bargain for not just the two-and-a-half months that we’ve been on strike, but six months. We started this process in July.”

The main sticking point for the union is greater job security for its members, who do more than 50 per cent of the teaching at the University, Shipley said. “For them to treat us as if we were expendable labour is disrespectful to say the least,” he said.

Shipley, a graduate student, said the striking staff sympathizes with the plight of students left in the lurch, but that they are fighting for resources to do their jobs effectively.

The lengthy strike, which began Nov. 6, has international student Amina Abbas frustrated she can’t proceed with her studies, having come all the way from Pakistan. “I’m so sick of it,” said the 20-year-old, who is taking a double major in communications and economics. “I want both (sides) to work together and basically work for the students because we’re the ones who are here, and it’s our money and our time.”

Hanna MacKechnie, 22, is in her final year studying humanities and is so frustrated by the strike that with mere months needed to complete her degree, she has contemplated transferring to another university. “I’m very stressed,” she said. “I just want to go back to school.”

Reg Pearson, a 10-year veteran in mediation, declined to comment about the University strike. “I’m still trying to sort out when we’re going to meet and all that good stuff,” he said.

Some students to return at York

About 5,000 York students will be able to return to classes Monday as an 11-week strike by teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty at the University continues, wrote CanWest News Service Jan. 22.

The decision, reached by the University’s Senate Executive, will only apply to undergraduates in the Schulich School of Business and students in Atkinson’s School of Administrative Studies, the Faculty of Education’s Pre-Service Full Time Consecutive Program and Atkinson’s Master of Public Policy, Administration & Law Program.

  •  The Schulich School of Business’ 1,200 undergraduate students are heading to class Monday for the first time since November, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 22.

Dean Dezsö J. Horváth sent an e-mail to students at 6pm yesterday, in which he said the school met with the Executive Committee of the University Senate following CUPE’s rejection of York’s offer on Tuesday. The Senate granted his request to resume operations, he said.

Elizabeth Maynes, director of the Schulich undergraduate program, said the school did what was best for its students. “We have professional programs, like accounting programs, where these students are going to lose a lot if these courses don’t get going,” she said.

But they still can’t attend elective classes, said Wade Cook, associate dean of research.

Students make hard choices as strike delays their plans

Taha Tariq is supposed to be home in Pakistan with his accounting degree in hand, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 22. But with the York strike in its 11th week, Tariq’s plans to return home are in limbo.

The fourth-year student pays $15,000 in tuition each yearmore than double the cost of domestic students. However, with his work hours being slashed at the on-campus Wendy’s, Tariq has lost 20 per cent of his working income.

“York has a policy that if you don’t cover your semester fees by the end of the semester, you can’t enrol for the next semester,” said Tariq, 25, who depends on his wages to cover tuition and his living expenses.

Roberto Alvarez, an international student from Mexico, had to give up a summer internship in Europe to finish a degree that was supposed to be completed in December.

“I had a lot of external costslike my visa, which is over $300; change my airplane tickets, which was over $250I probably will have to extend my rent and my lease and pay more rent,” said the frustrated undergraduate, who needs his transcripts to apply for post-graduate work.

CUPE 3903, which represents 3,400 teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty, invited the University back to the bargaining table yesterday but the University declined. “I think they’re ready to meet, not to bargain,” said Bob Drummond, dean of the Faculty of Arts and a negotiator for York. “Going back to the table implies there is a prospect of settling…. After 11 weeks with 75 items still on the table seems foolish. What’s the point of going back in that situation? In effect, it’s done for the optics for appearing to bargain but in fact there’s no movement on their side.”

However, CUPE 3903 media representative Tyler Shipley countered that many of the outstanding issues could be settled quickly. “The bulk of (the proposals) are minor language changes,” Shipley said, adding that the University’s reasoning is purely “spin and nothing else.”

Outside Drummond’s office there are piles of sleeping bags belonging to angry students who’ve camped outside York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri‘s office for three weekswaiting for him to hold a town-hall meeting to answer questions.

For some students, the strike was the last straw. “I didn’t want to wait. (I wanted) to get into the workforce sooner rather than later,” said Michael Larin, 23, who transferred from York to Seneca College in December. “The strike was going to hold me back another year…. It just seemed like the best thing to do.”

  • Teaching assistants (TAs) and contract faculty at York University have been on strike since Nov. 6, making some students, like Devon Burnet, regret their choice of schools, wrote the Caledon Enterprise Jan. 21.

Burnet, 21, is a fourth-year geography student, and Caledon resident, locked out of classes for two-and-a-half months as York staff and administration bicker. She worries that this strike will compromise her options for grad school; it’s already caused a delay in her application to Ryerson as she hesitated, not knowing when school would reconvene or if she would lose her year.

Luckily, Ryerson was fairly accommodating. “They encouraged me to still apply. They are taking into account that York is on strike and they told me how to alter my applications,” said Burnet. But whether a condensed York school year will affect students’ status in final consideration is yet to be seen.

  • As the York University strike drags on, some master’s students say undergraduate pupils aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 22.

Graduate assistant Niki Thorne, 24, said the fight by her and other members of the union to get better wages and benefits for future graduate students is not only stalling classes for undergraduates but also putting a strain on the academic pursuits of graduate and PhD students tied up in the ongoing battle with the school. “Some of us are taking more than the required amount of courses, so that means that we have 80 pages of writing due at the end of the term,” Thorne said Tuesday. “If the term is truncated and then 80 pages are due and the next term starts up again it’s very stressful for us.”

The first-year anthropology master’s student said she makes about $14 an hour and is limited to working 10 hours a week. She is making $200 per week during the strike because she gets paid for 20 strike hours a week. “My wages as a GA (graduate assistant) are pretty low. I make $100 more than my rent cost per month. There is not enough time in a day to have another part-time job. You can’t work 30 hours a week and do graduate school.”

Second-year anthropology master’s student Megan Cotton-Kinch, 27, said she helps support two brothers and her sick mother on her teaching assistant wages. She said some graduate students can’t work during the summer because they have to do research, sometimes overseas, that can be expensive to fund.

  • Fire them!, wrote columnist Joe Warmington in The Toronto Sun Jan. 22. And then give those cushy, well-paying York University teaching jobs to those not only happy to be getting a massive raise during a recession, but those who have more respect for students than to watch them potentially miss out on their year!

Fire their butts immediately and start classes later today! What are they waiting for? But don’t stop there. Please don’t stop there! Fire Premier Dalton McGuinty, too.

I ran into third-year Osgoode Hall Law School student Odysseas Papadimitriou, 27, at Café Frappé on The Danforth, yesterday where he was doing his law reading. Osgoode has done a good job of staying operational but Ody was telling me this café and the library at the University of Toronto have been where the reading gets done. Nobody likes to cross a picket line and since there is no bus service into the York campus, it means a 20-minute walk in the cold at night to get to many buildings. “I am not taking sides but I wish they would get it settled,” he said.

  • Various York speakers discussed the strike on radio and television Jan. 21: 

    • Mamdouh Shoukri, York president & vice-chancellor, spoke on Global TV, CityTV’s "Breakfast Television", CP24-TV, CBC Radio (Toronto) and 580CFRA Radio (Ottawa).
    • Alex Bilyk, York’s director of media relations, spoke on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning”, CFTO-TV (Toronto) and CICI-TV (Sudbury).
    • Bob Drummond, York’s dean of the Faculty of Arts, spoke on CFRB Radio.
    • Tyler Shipley, CUPE 3903 spokesperson, spoke about the strike on CityTV’s "Breakfast Television", CP24-TV and CFTO-TV, as well as Toronto radio stations CBC, 680News, CFRB, AM640 Radio and Ottawa’s 580 CFRA Radio. 
    • Candice Pike, teaching assistant at York, spoke on CBC Radio in Cornerbrook, Nfld.
    • Catherine Divaris, co-founder of, spoke on CBC Radio, CBC Newsworld and CityTV online.
    • York international student Soham Joshi and York Lanes vendor Amir Kader spoke about the impact the strike is having on them on CBC Radio.
    • York student Mitchell Flatt, spoke on Global TV.

On air

  • Stephen Newman, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke about the inauguration of US President Barack Obama on CKAT Radio (North Bay) and CHNI Radio (Saint John, NB) Jan. 20.
  • Elizabeth Dauphinée, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke about Obama on CTV Newsnet Jan. 21.
  • Joanne Duklas, University registrar, spoke about academic integrity, on CityTV (Edmonton) Jan. 21.