York union vows to fight back-to-work legislation

Efforts to get York University students back to class will face a further roadblock this morning as striking workers ask the courts to overturn provincial back-to-work legislation, sources say, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 27.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents striking teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty, will hold a news conference at the Ontario legislature today, when it will announce its intention to fight the proposed legislation. A union spokesperson would not give details of the plan, but sources at Queen’s Park said the union is seeking a court challenge.

The union is relying on a precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2007 involving a dispute between the British Columbia government and unionized health-care workers. In that case, the court severely restricted a government’s ability to use back-to-work legislation to those matters involving “essential services, administration of the state, clear deadlock and national crisis.”

The earliest the bill can be passed is this Thursday, pushing the return to classes to next week. The bill never made it past second reading because the New Democrats used every minute available to them to debate it. NDP Leader Howard Hampton spoke for a full hour and was followed by caucus members, who each talked for 20 minutes.

Satvir Lachhar, who is completing a certificate in human resources, was one of 5,000 students back at lectures yesterday morning, but said she was worried about how the extended school year will affect her summer plans. Lachhar had intended to write a qualifying exam this May that would allow her to begin her career. Now, with make-up classes lasting until June, there is no way for her to make that deadline. “I had wanted to complete that test so that I could have better job offers come summer,” she explained as she made her way through the mostly empty buildings in search of an open food outlet. “Now I don’t know if that will be possible.”

  • Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton said his party is delaying the inevitable passage of back-to-work legislation for striking York University staff because Ontarians “need to know” about the chronic underfunding of postsecondary education, wrote the National Post Jan. 27.

Hampton slammed the government for its “sorry” record of postsecondary funding, noting Ontario ranks last among provinces and near the bottom in North America.

Progressive Conservatives have welcomed fast-tracking the legislation to put an end to the strike, now in its 12th week, but criticized the government for not acting sooner to get York’s 50,000 students back in classes.

“The York University strike is a warning of things to come,” said party leader John Tory. “There are currently 10 other universities with contracts set to expire and the impact on students across Ontario could be devastating if the McGuinty Liberals don’t have a solution to deal with this.”

Fourth-year student Melissa Hooper, 21, is waiting to return to class and said she is frustrated the strike is now limiting her options for graduate school. Hooper said she applied to master’s programs in the United States but at least one school has already told her that to be considered for admission her first-term marks are due on Feb. 1.

“I’ve explained my situation, but Columbia told me they can’t wait,” Hooper said. “It’s frustrating but I can’t expect them to treat me differently from anybody else with so many people applying for a limited number of spaces.”

Zahran Khan, 22, a fourth-year political science student, said he has applied to law and master’s programs but fears the strike has put him at a disadvantage because some programs have already started early admissions. “I am sure other schools are not going to wait on York grades to fill their seats,” Khan said.

  • The union representing striking workers at York University is looking at its legal options in the face of back-to-work legislation that is before the Ontario legislature, wrote the National Post Jan. 27. As for a wildcat strike, union spokesperson Tyler Shipley said on Sunday he could not officially speak to that possibility, but did voice his opinion on the matter. “As an executive member of the union, I would never ask anyone to engage in illegal activity,” he said. “So I certainly can say I have no plan whatsoever to encourage a wildcat strike of any kind. It all remains to be seen but our position on that is quite clear.”
  • The battle of York University has moved from one between striking staff and administrators – with students stuck in the middle – to one between Liberals and NDPers trying to dodge blame for the dispute, with students stuck in the middle, wrote The Peterborough Examiner Jan. 27.

The government dismissed calls for a tuition refund yesterday, saying only that it would extend student loan programs and encourage the University to complete the academic year.

NDP members, who are refusing to provide their consent for speedy passage of the bill, admit to being deluged with hundreds of phone calls from members of the public but claim that many are from supporters as well as those opposed to their position. “We’re not here to filibuster,” NDP Leader Howard Hampton said. “We’re here to raise issues that need to be raised for the public of Ontario.”

In yet another possible wrinkle, CUPE Local 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley said the union is talking to lawyers and looking at “all options” in challenging the back-to-work bill. A Supreme Court decision has put limits on a government’s ability to order workers back on the job except in certain circumstances such as an impasse in negotiations.

“A deadlock requires two sides to stop moving and we haven’t stopped moving at any point in this strike,” Shipley said. “The day before this legislation was introduced we tabled a major concession. We put forward a new proposal that slashed all of our demands – we dropped up to 50 of them. That’s not a deadlock – that’s one side not moving and the other one moving.”

5,000 York students return, feeling torn

The return of 5,000 students to York University’s strikebound campus yesterday did little to appease Kee-Hong Bae, finance professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 27. “It’s ridiculous,” Bae said of the nearly three-month-long strike by members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903 – the third in a decade to paralyze the University. “If they (the union) continue to strike like this, I just may leave, look for another job.”

“I’m sick of it,” the professor said while students shuffled into the Schulich School of Business, one of a handful of Faculties allowed to reopen yesterday. The school doesn’t employ striking faculty and could have run during the dispute, said Bae, who teaches mostly third- and fourth-year courses.

On campus, students said they felt torn: relieved to see their own crisis resolved, but angry their friends remained in limbo and worried about the strike’s aftermath. Picketers at York’s main gate said they struggled to stay motivated in the face of back-to-work legislation, which threatens to quash their efforts.

Premier Dalton McGuinty called the Ontario Legislature back this weekend for a rare Sunday session to send strikers back to work, but the New Democrats voted against the bill, prolonging the stoppage for at least a few more days.

If the bill passes today, classes could resume as early as Thursday, according to the York Web site. If it passes tomorrow, the school would reopen Friday. An agreement later this week would push the start date to Monday.

In the Schulich lobby, Rupika Sharma tackled a heavy textbook for an 11:30am economics class. Though ready and glad to be back, the second-year student said she disapproves of the process that allowed her and her peers to return. “For me personally, it’s good; for the overall picture, it’s bad,” said Sharma, 19, noting rising resentment among the 45,000 students still barred from the classroom. She predicted tensions would only increase once back-to-work legislation takes effect. “The students are not in a good mood, the TAs are not in a good mood – how will the teaching take place?”

Others strained to catch up to their schoolwork and readjust to the academic routine. “We had assignments, but it’s hard when you don’t have a deadline,” Christine Kang said sheepishly. “We’re going to pull a brain muscle,” grumbled Anthony Antanrajakumar, 21, a third-year student. “They’re asking us to do a 100-metre sprint, but we didn’t even warm up or anything.”

At the main gate, about a dozen striking workers trudged dejectedly behind a barricade, blocking drivers for two minutes before allowing them on campus. “We’re sort of demoralized,” said picket captain Xavier Scott. “We’re unhappy the government stepped in. It’s great that (the strike) is ending – that was our goal from day one,” he said. “It’s just the terms on which it’s ending.”

  • It was a bittersweet reunion for 5,000 students who resumed classes at York University yesterday, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 27.

As pickets still circled the school’s Keele Street main entrance, returning students voiced their frustrations that 45,000 of their classmates were still locked out of classes for at least another week, while the province debates back-to-work legislation. Classes taught by teachers belonging to the non-union York University Faculty Association started up yesterday.

“I feel bad for the 45,000 students that are still struggling,” said business student David Kogan, 18. Kogan was glad to be hitting the books again but said the strike – 83 days in – will end up costing him a month of summer work for which he would’ve made up to $3,000 to help cover tuition. “I had a big trip to Israel I was going to go on in May that had to be cancelled,” he said. “I can’t apply to any internships because they’re all four months.”

Shaon Saeed, who also returned to class, said students have been left in the dark since the strike began. “I’m sure some of the other science students feel that their voices are not heard,” Saeed, 20, said. “It’s been a nice break, I can’t lie. But…I’m really happy to go back to school because I have to finish my degree.”

Marketing student Adrian D’Andrea said going back to class was “kind of liberating”. “It was frustrating staying at home,” he said. “The whole thing is really stupid. It just went on for too long.”

  • Some York University students who returned to class yesterday had a message for the New Democratic Party: Send us all back to class, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 27. “One of my friends who has always been an NDP supporter, their MSN message right now says: ‘I was an NDP supporter. So, get on the ball, NDP people’,” said student Shaon Saeed, 20.

Saeed said she’s hoping the government steps in and subsidizes some of the costs associated with the strike, including housing and tuition fees and lost wages from not working summer jobs.

David Kogan, 18, a business student, said while he doesn’t blame the NDP, they should’ve voted for the resolution. “This isn’t a time to throw around their political games,” he said. “It’s a time to stay focused and devote what’s on the agenda of the people, not their own political agenda.”

Kogan said he’s worried about getting into graduate school programs now. “I know the NDP have a leadership convention coming up and, from what I’ve been reading, it’s been ‘who can seem more anti-management at Queen’s Park and put on a show?’,” he said. “I think a lot of students are sick of being used as pawns.”

Osgoode Hall Law School student Jonathan Mackenzie said the government should have intervened earlier, especially since the strike in 2001. “It’s pretty evident that the atmosphere on the campus, the tension between the administration and the union that a settlement wasn’t going to be reached and there’s a deadlock,” Mackenzie, 22, said. “Students have no say in the process.”

But not everyone was upset at the NDP. CUPE picketer and graduate assistant Xavier Scott, 23, said the government shouldn’t have to be a white knight for the University’s administration. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about taking away workers’ rights to strike,” he said.

  • Students academically idled by a strike at Canada’s third-largest university vented their frustration Monday at provincial leaders, saying their “political war” has delayed legislation that would force teachers back to work, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 26.

“Everyone’s upset, they’re all talking about the debate,” said York student Catherine Divaris, who helped organize a student coalition opposing the strike. “This is just frustrating. They’re just prolonging the inevitable, basically. The bill’s going to pass – it’s just a matter of time.”

Disgruntled students watching the political wrangling voiced their growing frustration on the social networking site Facebook. “This is no longer about the students or getting us back to class, it seems to just be a political war between parties and ideologies,” wrote Kiran Chahal.

One York student thanked Howard Hampton for taking a stand. “I would rather miss another week of classes and know that at least someone in Ontario is thinking about the bigger picture and fairness,” Stephanie Martin wrote in an e-mail.

Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said the union is considering challenging the bill in court. “Really, this is an attack on labour across the province,” he said. “While for our own 3,500 members, this is incredibly frustrating and difficult, the precedent that it sets for the province is going to have ramifications that I don’t think the premier has really thought through.”

  • York student Ann-Sophie Perigny Michel said the delay caused by the NDP makes her feel like a pawn in a larger power struggle, wrote CBCNews.ca Jan. 27. “It makes us mad because we’re not only a prisoner of a university and a union, we’re now prisoners of a government and political parties,” she said.

York touts course in resolving conflict

York University is into week 12 of a crippling strike by teaching assistants and contract faculty that has virtually shut down classes. But that hasn’t stopped the University’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies from advertising recently in a Toronto newspaper for enrolment in its course in dispute resolution, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 27.

The continuing education department offers a Certificate in Dispute Resolution “as a first step in becoming a professional mediator.” Er, isn’t this just what York itself needs? The course was supposed to start Jan. 31, but a phone call to Atkinson reveals that the start date has been moved to Feb. 28, with the expectation the strike will be over by then.

The labour party

Howard Hampton, the outgoing Leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party, has some nerve calling for compensation for York University students who have seen their school year savaged by a strike by 3,500 teaching assistants and contract faculty, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 27 in an editorial. It is the NDP that has denied the Ontario government unanimous consent for back-to-work legislation, prolonging a dispute that is in its 12th week and aggravating the hardship facing 50,000 students. Will the Ontario NDP contribute toward any compensation?

The NDP often seeks to portray itself as the party representing a coalition of interests, prominent among them being students. If anyone had any lingering doubts where the party’s true allegiance lies, however, its political posturing over this strike should dispel them. The NDP is a party of organized labour, to the extent that its current leadership process to replace Hampton has made the interests of a relatively small group of unionists trump those of the student body of Canada’s third-largest university.

Students at York are raising the possibility of compensation for lost learning, but in truth they have learned a valuable lesson thanks to the Ontario NDP, a party that has put the leftish rhetoric that permeates so many university and college campuses into practice in the interest of the union movement. Those students will have an opportunity to put what they have learned into practice in the next Ontario election.

  • After a day spent perusing the various Web sites, pro and con, devoted to the still-ongoing York University strike and the anonymous meanness it has everywhere spawned, finally, there comes a lovely bit of clarity, wrote columnist Christie Blatchford in The Globe and Mail Jan. 27.

Enter Henry Juroviesky, of the Juroviesky and Ricci law firm in Toronto, and his firm’s class-action suit, filed on Jan. 23 in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Although only one plaintiff is named – fourth-year Richmond Hill, Ont., kinesiology student Jonathan Turner – almost 1,000 other York students have already signed up.

The firm, Juroviesky says, usually does securities and financial litigation, and when, weeks ago, he first began to receive e-mails (suggestive of the real distress the strike has caused, some were sent during the middle of the night) from York students and parents, “We ignored it.”

After all, after the 1997 York strike – that one was by the York University Faculty Association, which represents full-time professors and librarians, and lasted a mere 57 days – a student named Richard Ciano (BA Hons. ’98) had tried the same thing, and failed.

That decision was mercifully overturned on Sept. 15, 2000, by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ruled that because the case raised “a novel point of law”, it was therefore in the public interest.

So on the face of it, there were good reasons for Juroviesky’s firm not to be terribly interested in pursuing this suit. But then, he says, one of his associates attended a dinner where “a York student gave a first-hand account of callousness and high-handedness” of the University. “I’m a consumer advocate,” Juroviesky says. “I don’t like it when well-heeled corporate defendants, whether in the public sector or private, run roughshod over the Canadian consumer.”

  • It’s time to re-invent the Education Relations Commission (disbanded in 1997 by former premier Mike Harris) and give it broader powers, wrote columnist Murray Campbell about the strike at York University in The Globe and Mail Jan. 27.

Universities would argue a similar body for postsecondary labour relations would compromise their autonomy but that bridge was passed when they consented to accountability agreements in return for $6.2 billion in new funding, wrote Campbell. Unions would complain their rights would be curtailed but high-school unions weren’t diminished by the ERC. Students, on the other hand, would simply be happy that someone was looking out for them.

  • York students could very well have been back in lecture halls as early as this week, wrote the National Post Jan. 27 in an editorial. But the provincial NDP leader, Howard Hampton, appears determined to drag out this strike as long as he can. While the NDP plays partisan politics – knowing full well that the bill will pass in a majority vote later this week – York students are losing yet another week of school.

McGuinty’s decision to legislate the union back to work has met with almost unanimous support because it is the right decision; it means that students, who have been caught in the middle of this labour fight can get the education they signed up (and paid up) for. We predict that Hampton’s ploy will prove deleterious for his party in short order. York students are desperate to get back to school – they won’t forget who added an extra week to their unwanted hiatus.

  • While columnist Robert Fulford is entitled to his opinion on the York strike, I can happily report from the inside that the silence of tenured faculty members has not been that big an issue, wrote Seth Feldman, professor in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts and director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, in a letter to the National Post Jan. 27. Fulford himself notes the 300 or so of us who signed a letter urging the strikers to vote for the agreement.

Others have written to the media and their MPs and campus listservs and private e-mails are abuzz with heartfelt opinion on the issues, the strike’s effect on students and what is to be done when it’s over. And there have been some lively exchanges with the picketers, as well as gestures of support for them.

Of course, not everyone at York agrees with the National Post‘s editorial stance, wrote Feldman. But that’s hardly man bites dog.

  • If anyone thinks that it will be “business as usual” at York University once classes resume, they are kidding themselves, wrote Professor Andrea O’Reilly, of York’s Atkinson School of Arts & Letters and School of Women’s Studies, in the National Post Jan. 27. Professors and students are returning to a university that has bullied its most vulnerable employees for close to three months and left its prized graduate students out in the cold.

It is clear that York does not value the excellent teaching done by more than 50 per cent of its faculty. This is a university where dozens and dozens of professors must reapply for their teaching position each year. This is a university where mid-management types – who spend their day pushing paper – make up to 10 times what contract faculty professors, who spend their time advancing knowledge and changing students’ lives, earn.

Feb. 2 will mark my 28th year at York University. The York described above is not the York I knew and loved in my early years at this institution. The school’s president has said that now is the time for healing. For me, it is a time of mourning; for the York that was. That a handful of people, with the mandate of corporatization, could destroy so much leaves me heartbroken. I want to thank my CUPE colleagues for their courage and fortitude in fighting against the corporatization of university learning at a huge cost to themselves, their families and their careers. While I am no longer proud of York, I am of CUPE 3903.

  • As a citizen, taxpayer, registered voter and former York University student, I am appalled by Howard Hampton’s NDP’s ideologically inept response to the back-to-work legislation from Dalton McGuinty, wrote York grad Alexis Tumasz ( BA Hons. ’01) in a letter to The Toronto Sun Jan. 27.

As a former student who was caught in the 1997 York strike, I can empathize with the frustration and concern of the students. Will the NDP help defray students’ tuition costs? Will the NDP give the students money when they cannot work due to the lengthened school year? How can anyone in the NDP claim to be for “the people”? They are hypocrites in their ivory towers who claim to be socialists but they belong to a go-nowhere party with a go-nowhere platform. Do you all feel powerful now? Thanks for showing the students of York that you don’t give a damn about them.

  • I am a fourth-year student at York University, with the hopes of graduating this spring, wrote Jordan Fenton in a letter to NDP members of the legislature published in The Toronto Sun Jan. 27. The strike by CUPE 3903 has placed immeasurable financial, educational and personal hardships on the more than 50,000 undergraduate students at York University and its community at large.

[The NDP’s] persistence will only delay the inevitable and place added, agonizing burdens on the backs of young, eager students and suffering family-run businesses. This is a crucial time for the parliament of Ontario to put an immediate end to the 81-day York University strike. The York University community is hoping.

  • The problem with the NDP’s stand is that it offers no solution, wrote the Waterloo Region Record Jan. 27. After refusing to support back-to-work legislation on Sunday, NDP Leader Howard Hampton charged that the striking teaching assistants and contract faculty do 54 per cent of the work at York University but earn a mere fraction of York’s salary budget. Hampton has a point. Many fully tenured university professors pull in $100,000-plus a year while teaching assistants scramble to make a quarter of that.

But if the offer of 10.7 per cent over three years rejected by the teaching assistants isn’t good enough for them or Hampton, what is? It would cost tens of thousands of dollars per teaching assistant to even start closing the wage gap. And York is but one university in Ontario. Where would Hampton find all the money he needs for all those workers? From taxpayers? Students? Before we see anymore time-wasting NDP grandstanding, it would be nice to know.

  • If the provincial NDP wants to fight for the rights of part-time faculty at York University in Toronto, that’s fine but the party should let the students at Canada’s third-largest university get back to school before any more damage is done to their education, wrote The Sudbury Star Jan. 27 in an editorial.

But he can raise awareness while the students are at school. Keeping them out for another week or so serves a political means, but it is only hurting students. The NDP isn’t doing these students a favour by delaying proceedings so the last useable day school is gone. The legislature can pass the bill in a few days, forcing the issue. It’s too bad Hampton and the NDP had to extend their misery.

  • Not only students, but also Ontarians in general, will wonder how in this dire economic climate about 3,300 publicly paid contract faculty and other staff at York University could go on strike, wrote The Windsor Star Jan. 27 in an editorial.
  • Various members of the York community spoke about the strike on radio and television Jan. 26.
    • Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for CUPE Local 3903, spoke on CityTV, CP24-TV, SunTV and CBC Radio
    • Christina Rousseau, chair of CUPE 3903, spoke on CP24-TV and AM640 News Radio
    • Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, spoke on CBC Radio’s “Metro Morning” and CTV Newsnet
    • Dhruv Jain, CUPE 3903 contract faculty, spoke on CFRB Radio
    • Students Ann Sophie Perigny Michel, Angelie Sood, Frederique Gerard spoke on Radio Canada ( Toronto) Jan. 26.
    • Lyndon Koopmans, co-founder of YorkNotHostage.com, spoke on AM900 News Talk Radio (Hamilton).
    • Catherine Divaris, co-founder of YorkNotHostage.com, spoke on TALK820 Radio (Hamilton)
    • Xavier Lafrance, teaching assistant, and Jean-Mikael Michaud, president of the Glendon Student Union, spoke on RDI-TV’s “En Direct” (Montreal)
    • Students Daniyal Fahim and Christine Kang, and CUPE 3903 picket captain Xavier Scott spoke on CityTV “News at Noon”. Scott also spoke on Global TV News, as did student Valerie Whiffen. Kang also spoke on CFMT-TV’s “Studio Aperto” and “Cantonese Edition News”
    • Students Stephanie Gyles and Luis De Jesus spoke on CityTV’s “News at Five”
    • Student Rehan Iqbal and teaching assistant Bikrum Gill, spoke on OMNI-TV’s “South Asian Edition News”