Province says it is acting on behalf of students

Back-to-work legislation that was supposed to end a lengthy strike by York University employees instead left students in the lurch Sunday after a lack of political support left it unclear when classes would resume at Canada’s third-largest university, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 25.

The government’s hopes for speedy passage and the resumption of classes Monday were dashed when the New Democrats voted against the bill, prolonging the agony for at least a few more days for some 50,000 students.

The government believes it’s unlikely that students will return to school this week unless the New Democrats have a change of heart, and figure Thursday is the earliest the legislation could be officially passed. Even if that happens, York officials say they need to give students 24-hours notice before resuming classes, which means the school likely won’t reopen before Feb. 2.

Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the legislature before the legislation was introduced, the din of their demonstration echoing inside as the votes were being counted.

Striking teaching assistant Sean Starrs said he was happy to be returning to class but frustrated that the government is determined to end the impasse. “I think it’s a dangerous precedent to the entire labour movement,” Starrs said of the looming back-to-work legislation. “It shows all an employer has to do during a strike is sit (back) and not bargain at all until the government passes back-to-work legislation.”

But Deputy Premier George Smitherman said the government gave both sides more than enough time to come to an agreement and it was clear intervention was needed. “This has had 80 days of due process and collective bargaining, it has not resulted in a conclusion that’s right for the students, we (acted) today on behalf of the students,” he said.

The government bill calls for the two sides to appoint a mediator within five days of the legislation passing, or the government will select one. The bill instructs the mediator to consider the current economic environment in Toronto and the province, what kind of cuts York could have to make, and salaries at other institutions before making a binding decision.

Workers who continue to strike or employers who bar staff from work after the legislation is passed could face fines of up to $2,000 a day.

Also Sunday, a Toronto law firm said it has filed a class-action lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on behalf of York students, claiming they’re entitled to a refund of their tuition and other fees.

In a release, Juroviesky and Ricci LLP says the suit, which has yet to name a lead plaintiff, alleges “class-wide violations of various statutory and common law duties to the students of York University.”

  • Back-to-work legislation to end the strike at York University stalled yesterday, prompting calls for compensation for the 50,000 students caught in the middle of the 12-week dispute, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 26.
    “Everyone here is suffering, and students the most,” said Lyndon Koopmans, a founder of a student Facebook group formed during the strike. “We are not going to learn as much as we should. It would seem financial compensation is in order.“

The president of York’s student union, Hamid Osman, also called for a rebate, and late yesterday a Toronto law firm issued a news release saying it had filed a statement of claim and was looking for students to join a class-action lawsuit against the University.

York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk said that students would not receive refunds on tuition. He said the school would still squeeze in a complete academic term, cancelling reading week, condensing exam time and extending the winter term to June 2. “The students are here for the academic program, and that program will be delivered on,” he said.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton defended yesterday’s delay, which he said could last “two or three days”, accusing the University of refusing to negotiate with its workers and intentionally dragging out the dispute in order to have the government order strikers back to work.

Even if the NDP tries to further delay the legislation, the government said it could be passed in a matter of days, with the dispute referred to binding arbitration.

Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, expressed frustration at the government’s actions, saying the union had made significant changes to its position, which centres on job security for contract faculty, many of whom must reapply for their jobs each year even though some have worked at York for more than a decade.

Shipley said picket lines will remain up at the country’s third-largest university this morning as about 5,000 students in selected Faculties return to class.

The union, he said, is also consulting with its lawyers on possible legal action to stop the government’s move.

Peter Fonseca, Ontario’s minister of labour, said the government expects to pass the bill – using closure or a time allocation motion if necessary – in a few days: “Hopefully by week’s end we will come to a conclusion and we can get the students back into the class.”

  • It’s tough being a York University New Democrat these days, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 26. Student members of the party are finding they have lots of explaining to do with classmates resentful that the NDP is stalling back-to-work legislation that would end an 11-week strike and re-open the University.

Worse, the 450 New Democrats have themselves been divided throughout the strike, says Phil Pothen, in charge of policy for the York branch of the party. “There are people on all sides of the issue,” said Pothen, a 26-year-old law student. “Everybody in our group wants to get back to school. The question is on what terms should that happen.”

Other students are organizing to encourage MPPs to push through the legislation as quickly as possible. Kinesiology student Catherine Divaris, co-founder of a Facebook site against the strike, says students will demonstrate at Queen’s Park to back the legislation on Wednesday. “It’s time students get heard,” said Divaris, 22. “We’ve been ignored for 11 weeks.”

  • It could be another week before York University students resume classes after the Ontario New Democratic Party refused yesterday to help fast-track back-to-work legislation introduced at Queen’s Park to end an 80-day strike by teaching assistants and contract professors, wrote the National Post Jan. 26.

Alex Bilyk, a spokesperson for York, said what day classes will resume depends on what day the back-to-work bill gets royal assent, since the University is obligated to give students 24-hours notice. “So if it passes on Monday, they’d be in class on Wednesday,” Bilyk said. “If it passes on Tuesday they’d be in class Thursday. Wednesday on Friday. And if on Thursday it would have to be on Feb. 2, which is on a Monday.”

Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, said yesterday another week’s delay getting back to class is frustrating but he placed blame for the entire fiasco at the feet of the Ontario government. “It annoys me that it’s been so long,” he said. “My frustrations go from the McGuinty government not investing in postsecondary education, it goes to York University, with three strikes in 10 years. Our frustrations are all around. Students want to be back in the classroom learning and graduating. Everyday counts. It’s counted since Nov. 6.”

Catherine Divaris, co-organizer of, which currently has more than 5,000 members, said jubilantly she and others in the group are “absolutely elated”, by the latest development. “I think we all knew York and the union would not be able to agree on sticky issues,” she said in an interview yesterday. “It is very late in the game, but at least McGuinty did call the legislature and introduce the bill.”

She added the delay due to the NDP slowing passage of the bill was disappointing but predictable. “We figured the NDP would do this,” she said. “It’s kind of ironic that the NDP claims to support students and they’re not doing anything to get us back into the classroom after an 11-week long break.”

York University student Kriss Bacon, founder of the Facebook group 50,000 Against York U, called the Ontario government’s bill “too little, too late. I’m already losing 12 per cent of my instruction time and 33 per cent of my yearly income opportunities,” he said.

  • The students will be returning to a University that has been sharply divided by a bitter 11-week strike by 3,340 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 25. Mamdouh Shoukri, York president & vice-chancellor, said he will lead efforts to restore the University’s reputation and unity. “We have a job to do…to rebuild this community and to reunite this community,” Shoukri said in an interview yesterday.

Shoukri said the NDP leader is “entitled to his opinion” but he supports any measure that gets students back to their studies. “Everything we’ve done along the way was driven by a sincere desire to bring our students back to class as quickly as possible,” he said.

To help those affected by the strike, McGuinty promised to extend the terms of government loans, but York Federation of Students president Hamid Osman said that was not good enough. “Extending OSAP (the Ontario Student Assistance Program) means you’re getting more students in debt,” said Osman. “Students are eager to get back to the classroom. But our goal is for them to go back to the classroom and to receive a three-week refund at minimum. The school year has been shortened by three weeks,” he said.

  • York University contract professor Dhruv Jain came to the Legislature yesterday to watch the Ontario government introduce back-to-work legislation that will force him to return to the classroom, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 26.

But when he might return to the classroom was up in the air last night, after the legislation was denied speedy passage when the New Democrats voted against it. Without unanimous all-party support, MPPs now must hold a debate.

Jain, 25, teaches one full course, the Introduction to African Studies, and makes $14,000 a year. He struggles from month to month and lives under the poverty line.

Jain feels as though the “academic integrity” of York is shot because the administration failed to work with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903, to end the strike. The strike shut down the York campus on Nov. 6, when 3,300 teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants walked off the job. Conciliation and a last-ditch attempt at mediation failed.

“You are basically forcing 3,300 people to go back into a classroom they do not want to be in, not because they don’t want to teach their students, but because of the way this labour conflict has been resolved,” he told the Toronto Star.

York students welcome the idea of tuition relief. Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, called for a tuition refund of at least 12 per cent “because the administration has cut down the school year to 23 weeks.”

CUPE spokesperson Tyler Shipley said the central issue in the dispute is job security for contract professors. “These are people who have been teaching for 15, sometimes 20, years at York and they have to reapply for every course they teach. That means come September, you don’t know if you have one course to teach or five.”

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk said the University “tried its hardest to get a deal” and called the legislation a “light at the end of the tunnel”. 

  • Hundreds of York University‘s striking staff members and their supporters rallied outside Queen’s Park to demand that Ontario MPPs scrap back-to-work legislation and that University negotiators return to the bargaining table, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 26.

Max Haiven, of McMaster University’s CUPE Local 3906, said York has a strong local that has made many gains for the postsecondary labour – setting the bar for others to follow. “It’s no surprise the University and province are making York an example because they’ve made many strides in the labour struggle,” said Haiven, who cites a 78-day strike in 2001 that won wage indexation for members.

  • York University rejected the latest offer by striking teaching assistants and contract staff yesterday, turning away from what the union called “substantially lowered demands”, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 24.  The union submitted a pared-down list of demands yesterday, agreeing in principle to accept the current wage offer from York, CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley said. But it was still looking for 16 demands, including increased security for contract faculty and an improved benefits plan.
  • The record-breaking strike at York University has driven applications to the mighty Faculty of arts down 26 per cent, meaning fewer courses will be offered this fall at a school already reeling from a battered public image, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 25.

And Christopher Innes, a York University professor, said applications to graduate programs in the arts are also down – English, for example, by a staggering 40 per cent – and warned it will take time for the school to repair its reputation. “The back-to-work legislation is long overdue; the strike has been extraordinarily bad public relations for the University and was a desperately wrong-headed move,” said Innes, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture.

York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri confirmed the application drop in the arts faculty in an interview yesterday, adding that applications to the University are down 15 per cent overall. “There is no question there is an impact on our reputation,” Shoukri said, referring to the strike. “We hope we will be able to recover from this quickly.”

The drop in applications in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies – the largest in Canada – will mean York will be forced to offer fewer courses, said Rob Tiffin, vice-president students, in a bulletin on the University’s Web site.

This cutback will be felt by the very workers who went on strike, noted Innes. “What the strike has done is diminish enrolment, which in turn will mean we offer fewer courses, which in turn means there will be fewer part-time jobs for the very people who went on strike,” said Innes. “I can’t imagine anything more self-destructive.”

Shoukri acknowledged that students will be returning to a University divided by a bitter strike. But he said he’s convinced striking employees forced back to work will get on with their jobs and help rebuild unity. “I believe we are dealing here with professionals,” he said. “As soon as they hit the classrooms, I have no question about their commitment to the students.”

Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for the striking CUPE employees, said the union will instruct its members to return to their jobs despite the possibility of challenging the law in court. “We’re certainly not going to encourage our members to do anything illegal,” he said.

  • The bitter strike at Toronto’s York University might seem retrograde, an old-school battle that pits bean-counters against professors demanding a recession-time raise, wrote the National Post Jan. 24. But experts say this closure, now in its 11th week, might mark the beginning of a larger trend, one that could push campuses to the brink. Next month, for example, a union of part- and full-time professors will also be gunning for better wages and benefits at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University.

Ontario isn’t alone in this predicament. Hoping to save money at every turn, administrators in Canada and the US have hired droves of teachers on the cheap – “permatemp” profs – either to lecture, grade papers or oversee student conferences. Sometimes likened to Wal-Mart workers, these PhDs, part-time lecturers and teaching assistants often perform tasks that tenured professors do not – or will not. But in recent years, the tension around this underclass is coming to a boil.

The growing strife speaks to the troubled evolution of public universities, which have been slouching toward an existential crisis since the 1980s. Like unwieldy conglomerates, they have overextended, taking on broad mandates at the expense of their core identity.

  • Premier Dalton McGuinty announced yesterday that he will recall the House for a special Sunday sitting today to bring an end to an 11-week strike by York University contract faculty and teaching assistants that has left up to 50,000 students out in the cold, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 25.

McGuinty suggested the largest casualty in this strike may be York University which has further cemented its reputation as a hotbed of labour instability. The premier said the University, the third largest in Canada, may find it difficult in future to attract students.

  • Premier Dalton McGuinty had resisted Opposition calls to introduce back-to-work legislation, but relented Saturday, saying the strike was jeopardizing students’ education, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 24. “Educational aspirations, opportunities, a bright future – I mean, that’s what we want for our kids and all of that was compromised as a result of what took place at York University,” McGuinty said. “I cannot help as a parent but resent that and be angered by that.”

When the dust has settled, the school must examine what led to the “labour mess” that put its students’ futures on hold, McGuinty said. “There appears to be a systemic issue there when it comes to labour relations,” McGuinty said, adding that it’s up to York University brass to figure out how to fix it.

Students learning Saturday they’ll soon emerge from the state of limbo were for the most part relieved. “I’m definitely in support that McGuinty stepped in,” said David Damiani, 20, a second-year kinesiology & health science student.

Shawn Blayney, 21, who’s hoping to graduate this year, said she was thrilled by the prospect of going back to class, but disappointed that opposition by the NDP will delay her return. “I could understand at the beginning of the strike that (the union) did want to fight for higher wages and job security,” she said. “But we’re in the third month now and it’s inconveniencing a lot more people than it’s going to benefit.”

McGuinty should have stepped in much sooner, she said. Blayney had been considering graduate studies at York, but now wants to finish her degree and leave the school behind.

But Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said McGuinty’s move undermines labour rights. “This sets a precedent for Ontario that is going to come with a heavy price,” he said. “This says essentially to all workers in the province: `You don’t have the right to go on strike, and if you do you could be legislated back to work’.”

Shipley said he still hopes a deal can be reached before the legislation is passed. A court challenge is another option, he said.

York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said while he would have preferred the two sides reach a negotiated settlement, he looks forward to welcoming students back. “We are working tirelessly to facilitate as smooth a return as possible and plans are already in motion to protect the integrity of their academic programs,” he said in a statement.

Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, applauded the premier’s decision. “It’s sad that (the two sides) couldn’t come to an agreement together, but students need to be back in the classroom and students deserve to be back in the classroom.”

Stacey Russell, 21, a fourth-year sociology student, said she’s feeling divided now the dispute is coming to a close. “I’m excited to go back, just because this is my final year and I’ll be graduating,” she said. “However, if we have to cram, it’s going to be ridiculously stressful.”

As faculty and teaching assistants may be forced back to the classroom rather than reaching an agreement, Russell said she’s concerned about the mood on campus. “It’s going to be very chaotic going back. I think there’s going to be many students and professors arguing,” she said.

Students seek refund, relief

Some York University students are showing increasing disdain for the strike by asking the school to refund their tuition fees, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 24.

Volunteers from the York Federation of Students have been out in force since Wednesday getting students to sign a petition aimed at pressuring the school to return a portion of tuition dollars. More than 1,000 have signed so far.

Siva Vimalachandran, one of the volunteers behind the project said the federation has also launched a relief fund to help students in need. Students who can show they’ve suffered financial hardship due to the strike may receive $100. “We’ve taken money from our relief fund to help alleviate some of that stress. It’s money that was there to help in these kind of situations,” he said.

Third-year business student Glen Yamashita, 20, said he deserves a refund because he’s not receiving the education he paid for. “I thought that the vote was going to end it,” he said.

Third-year English student Kassandra Forde-Klumb, 21, said even if tuition is refunded, undergraduates with student loans will still owe interest on their loans. “If we don’t get our credits I’m expecting my entire tuition back,” she said. “It goes back to the government, then I’m going to have to pay interest on that later.”

Forde-Klumb also purchased all her textbooks for last semester so if some of her courses are forfeited she would have to sell the unused books at a loss. “If I return them to York University they give me like 2 per cent of the cost back,” she said.

Speed passage of back-to-work bill

The province has finally done what was necessary to end a protracted strike by teaching faculty at York University, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 26 in an editorial. Back-to-work legislation, introduced yesterday, means the end is in sight for 50,000 students held hostage by the labour dispute.

The issues raised in this strike – including pay for teaching assistants and reliance on contract faculty instead of hiring more tenured professors – are not unique to York, however. They could soon emerge on other campuses. It would be wise, then, for the government to take pre-emptive action, perhaps with a task force to examine the concerns raised by the union.

Already the head of CUPE Ontario, Sid Ryan, has declared that this fight isn’t over. “You will be hearing from us again premier,” says Ryan, signalling that he will push similar demands in universities across the province in 2010.

Today, however, the focus should be on passing the back-to-work bill. If the New Democrats hold it up, they will have a lot of explaining to do to 50,000 students and their parents, and to Ontarians in general.

  • No one should have been surprised, given Premier Dalton McGuinty’s temperament, when he decided on the hammer of back-to-work legislation this weekend to end the 11-week strike at York University, wrote columnist Jim Coyle in the Toronto Star Jan. 26.

The premier is famously even-keeled, his reserve and civility maintained on good days and bad. So when he told a provincial mediator last week to “bang heads together” – in a last-ditch effort to find a settlement between the school and its striking teaching assistants and contract faculty – it was the equivalent of a shoe-throwing fit of fury. He’d plainly had enough.

How postsecondary institutions are to be adequately funded and staffed – when per capita provincial support lags behind other provinces, when taxpayers are tapped out, when tuition is already prohibitive – is a pressing and unresolved problem. The premier correctly concluded, however, that this was a debate that could no longer be waged on the backs of one group of students.

  • There’s only one way to get York University students back in the classroom this week, wrote Queen’s Park columnist Christina Blizzard in The Toronto Sun Jan. 26. Now that Howard Hampton and the NDP have put the brakes on back-to-work legislation, you have to let our fearless lefties know directly how you feel. Call them. E-mail them. Tell them how angry you are at their ideological hissy fit.
  • No one else needed a course in Injustice 101 to realize that the York University strike had gone on far too long, but with some last minute remedial help, Premier Dalton McGuinty has finally come to the same conclusion, wrote columnist Michelle Mandel in The Toronto Sun Jan. 26.

The real agenda behind this strike was a cold-hearted strategy to increase CUPE’s power down the road. The academic lives of 50,000 York students were selfishly placed on hold in [CUPE President Syd] Ryan’s grand scheme to have all university contracts in Ontario expire simultaneously in 2010. What bargaining clout! What hijacking power.

Whether their teachers return to work tomorrow or two weeks from now, one thing is certain: The damage to York University is done.

This is already the third bitter strike York has weathered in just 12 years and not surprisingly, applications for Canada’s third largest university are down 15 per cent for next year. Why would you want to go there when you run the real danger of having your classes suddenly cancelled for months at a time?

Fewer students, of course, mean a reduced need for those who teach them. So how ironic it would be if, thanks to their union, many of these TAs, graduate assistants and contract faculty have just spent 11 weeks on a picket line marching themselves out of a job.

  • Faculty at York University may in future run into a spot of trouble when they discuss abstract questions of justice while teaching disciplines such as law, political science and philosophy, wrote Robert Fulford in the National Post Jan. 24. They may find their students responding with cynicism, possibly expressed in bursts of bitter laughter.

York’s students have come to realize that they are themselves victims of a grave injustice, visited upon them by a strike staged by teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants that has paralyzed most of the campus for 11 weeks, so far. They are also the victims of the York University Faculty Association, which has mindlessly and pusillanimously supported the strikers.

The 3,300 teaching assistants etc., are members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the largest union in the country. They have created a tangled, messy, intractable strike by insisting on far more concessions than the University can possibly deliver. Not only are their wage demands preposterous but their demand for a role in reorganizing the teaching staff threatens the autonomy of universities. In particular, they want to bargain many of their members up from contract faculty to full-time tenured status, based only on seniority. This would mean the University would lose its right to choose which teachers become permanent. If this power grab succeeds at York, CUPE will try to impose it elsewhere a year or two from now.

The National Post editorial board has suggested that the Ontario boss of CUPE, Sid Ryan, should be impeached because he said Canadian universities should ban Israeli scholars unless they disown Israeli policy in Gaza. The Post is right, but that’s Ryan’s lesser transgression, a symbolic gesture that reflects nothing but his love of publicity: Ryan knows that any dean who embraced his idea would be committing academic suicide. York’s strike, on the other hand, is no symbol – it’s already had disastrous effects and threatens much worse in the future. It’s union empire-building carried to the point of destructive irresponsibility.

  • A number of members of the York community spoke about the strike on radio & television over the weekend:
    • Mamdouh Shoukri, York president & vice-chancellor
    • Alex Bilyk, York’s director of media relations
    • Tyler Shipley, CUPE Local 3903 spokesperson
    • Michiel Horn, professor emeritus and University historian
    • Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students
    • Lyndon Koopmans, co-founder of
    • Mellissa Kwok, Zoe Snider-Verhees and Iris Binger, students in York’s dance department
    • Students Ivan Peytchev, Martin Kessler, Miles Forrester and Nicole Black