Premier looks at setting up new commission to watch strikes

Premier Dalton McGuinty, stung by accusations of fumbling the York University strike, says the government is exploring a new commission that would intervene when campus labour disputes are getting out of hand, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 28.

A commission won’t help the nearly 45,000 York University students still not in class, said Sid Ryan, Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who added that if back-to-work legislation passes today or tomorrow, CUPE may take court action on the basis that it violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “If we pursue it, the strike will be prolonged,” Ryan told a news conference at Queen’s Park yesterday. “We don’t want to go down that road.” There was no “deadlock” in the talks, he said.

Mediator Reg Pearson was brought in last week to bring a quick settlement to the three-month strike but informed the premier Saturday that negotiation was not possible. CUPE Local 3903 wanted to keep bargaining, but York refused to continue, he said.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton phoned McGuinty early yesterday and urged him to call York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri to get him back to the table. McGuinty then encouraged Shoukri to do so while back-to-work legislation makes its way through the legislature.

But the union’s last proposal was more than double the University’s offer for settlement, according to Shoukri. “That is an impasse by any standards,” he said in a statement. The latest CUPE offer still had 42 outstanding demands, he said, including a “minimum guarantee” for graduate assistants worth $1.6 million and more bursary dollars.

As debate on Bill 145 continued for the third day at the legislature, frustration spilled over into a confrontation with police during a union-organized march to the legislature. Four people were arrested.

“Negotiate, don’t legislate,” teaching assistant Noaman Ali chanted to the crowd of some 200 people.

Some 75 people later broke off from the main rally and headed to the police station where the four people arrested were taken. The crowd was confronted with barricades, some 25 police officers and nine officers on horseback before the peaceful demonstration dispersed after about 30 minutes.

The two men and two women were arrested after an officer contacted his dispatcher to say “he needed assistance”, said Toronto police spokesperson Const. Tony Vella. Bystanders also called police, he said. Four police officers had minor injuries.

All four suspects will be charged with assaulting police officers and obstructing police, Vella said.

Education commissions exist for colleges, elementary and secondary schools. Members, including experts in education, labour and conflict law, sit when needed.

Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students , dismissed McGuinty’s proposal. “Why isn’t the premier talking about investing in postsecondary education? That’s the real question. He’s providing a Band-Aid solution,” said Osman, emphasizing the best way to end labour strife is to better fund universities.

A new education commission will not have an effect on collective bargaining, Hampton said. “All they do is provide an objective analysis of when students may be in jeopardy of losing their academic year.”

But a commission would be helpful as a mechanism to influence people to bargain, he said. “What we’ve had in this case is a university administration that in my view has used every technique and every dodge to avoid bargaining.”  

  •  During question period, McGuinty said talks have failed between the two sides and the government now has a responsibility to get students back to class, wrote Canwest News Service Jan. 27. He said he is more than prepared to encourage York to continue negotiating but the province is moving ahead with back-to-work legislation. “The greater public interest demands that, at some point in time, we blow the whistle and say: ‘Time is up; young people have to be back in the classroom’,” McGuinty said.

A spokesperson for McGuinty said the premier spoke briefly with the president of York University late Tuesday afternoon and encouraged the two sides to keep talking.

In a statement Tuesday, York said the only “certain way now” to get students back in class is through legislation. “York’s bargaining team spent over 40 days in negotiations with CUPE 3903 beginning in July of last year,” York’s President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said. “After six months, which included 11 weeks on strike, the union’s last offer was still more than double the University’s offer for settlement. That is an impasse by any standards.”

  • Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is considering measures to better protect university and college students during strikes, including an agency that would determine when their education is in jeopardy, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 28.
  • Growing frustration over the protracted labour dispute spilled over into a confrontation with police during a union-organized march to the legislature, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 27. Lydie Brawer saw the protest from an office building across the street, threw on a coat, and went over to confront them.

“I want my kids to go back to school,” said the mother of two York students – one in fourth year who’s in jeopardy of not graduating, and a son in first year who she said has “lost his appetite” for university. “I sympathize with (the striking workers), but that’s enough now. They have to think about the kids.”

Pushing York University back to the table isn’t going to help, said Catherine Divaris, who helped organize a coalition of fellow students who oppose the strike. “They’ve been trying to negotiate for 12 weeks, I mean, what’s the point?” she said. “We’re so close to getting back to class now, that would just be devastating. I think students…would just lose complete faith in this entire process.”

  • About 200 members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903 gathered at the Ontario Ministry of Labour office near University Avenue and Dundas Street where the rally began, wrote Jan. 27.

The protesters marched to the legislature building with the MPPs debating the back-to-work bill that could end the strike and have classes resume Monday. “It’s about a fundamental right of labour,” said Noaman Ali, a teaching assistant and graduate student at York University. Calling the back-to-work legislation “reprehensible”, he called on the province to instead force the University administration to come back to the bargaining table to resolve the labour dispute.

The demonstration, however, was disrupted when an altercation took place between a police officer and a union member who allegedly ignored police orders to stop blocking traffic. Other protesters got involved in the confrontation with police, resulting in at least four union members taken into police custody, according to CUPE 3903 representatives.

The crowd voiced their anger toward the officers on duty, shouting, “Let them go,” and chanting, “Free, free, free our colleagues.” “I have a right to be here,” said Gita Hashemi (MA ’00), a contract faculty professor at the University. “Our members have a right to be here.” The march eventually proceeded with the union and its supporters reaching Queen’s Park where provincial NDP leader Howard Hampton addressed the large crowd.

  • Four protesters were arrested in a clash with police yesterday during a march on Queen’s Park to demonstrate against the government’s handling of the 83-day strike at York University, which has kept up to 50,000 students out of class, wrote The Kingston Whig-Standard Jan. 28.

Tyler Shipley, spokesperson for CUPE Local 3903, which represents the striking teaching assistants and part-time professors, said he was surprised by the police response and that the union demos are always orderly. “They’re never violent. They’re never provoking. They’re always peaceful rallies and this one was no different,” Shipley said. “And obviously we’ve seen a very heavy-handed response from the police and I know that we’ll make sure that our members get justice on this. They’ve done nothing wrong.”

  • Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton is engaging in political grandstanding, wrote Susan Virtue in a letter to the National Post Jan. 28. Where was he 13 weeks ago when the CUPE strike at York University began? Why didn’t he speak out then? The fact that he and the NDP have prolonged the return to school of 45,000 students is unconscionable.

As the parent of a York University student, I am fed up with the politicization of education. I want to see someone put the students first, not their own grievances and political agendas. I am appalled that the York administration and CUPE could not reach a settlement, I am angry that McGuinty waited until the very last moment to get involved and I am absolutely incensed with the NDP for holding up the inevitable back-to-work order. Shame on all of you!

  • A variety of members from the York community spoke about the strike on radio and television on Jan. 27 (unless dated otherwise).
    • York student Mandy Bakalarczyk spoke on Elliot Lake’s CKNR-FM Radio Jan. 22
    • York student Valerie Whiffen spoke on Global TV
    • Tyler Shipley, CUPE 3903 spokesperson, spoke on Global TV, CFRB Radio (Toronto), and radio stations in Thunder Bay and Wingham
    • Xavier Lafrance, York teaching assistant, spoke about the strike on CityTV
    • Gita Hashemi, contract faculty member, spoke on CBC-TV
    • CUPE 3903 members Tristan Laing, Chelsea Flook and Nathan Kalman-Lamb spoke on Global TV

Multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed against York

As York University students wait to see when back-to-work legislation will send them back to class, a $250-million class action lawsuit has been filed against the University, wrote the North York Mirror Jan. 27. The law firm Juroviesky & Ricci has filed the lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, demanding students receive a refund of tuition and other fees. It also seeks damages suffered by students enrolled in full- and part-time programs.

“It’s unfortunate that this matter has evolved into a stalemate labour negotiation between York University and the union and has lost its primary focal point, namely the welfare of the York University students, and as such, the only practical option the students have for immediate relief and the possibility to salvage their academic track is via the court system through this class action,” Henry Juroviesky said.

University spokesperson Alex Bilyk and York Federation of Students President Hamid Osman could not be reached for comment Monday and Tuesday. The allegations contained in the lawsuit have not been proven in court.

Strike at York leaves deep wounds

York University will be in the recovery room for a long time, wrote columnist Carol Goar in the Toronto Star Jan. 28. This week’s emergency surgery by the provincial government will restore its vital functions. But a legislated end to the strike that has paralyzed the University for three months won’t fix what is wrong, rectify the damage that was done or prevent the same thing from happening again.

Although York’s undergrads were the primary victims of the strike, the damage rippled out in many directions. Other unions, which have bargained in good faith and worked creatively to save jobs, were tainted by association with CUPE 3903, which was intransigent, unrealistic and indifferent to the harm it was causing.

Other students, beginning with undergraduates at the University of Toronto, could soon see similar job action. Emboldened by the “success” of its York counterpart, CUPE 3902, which represents teaching assistants and sessional instructors at the U of T, is now running ads warning: “We don’t want to strike but we will.” Other members of the community, from coffee-shop owners to immigrants who went into debt to send their children to York, were side-swiped.

The root problem, according to most academics, is the underfunding of postsecondary education. If Ontario were to provide adequate financial support, they argue, universities would not have to rely so heavily on teaching assistants and contract faculty. This would allow them to offer students a better education and improve labour relations.

No doubt money would alleviate some of the tensions at York. But it is not the whole answer and it’s not an affordable answer with the economy shrinking and tax revenues dropping. There are other avenues worth exploring:

Is the University asking enough of its tenured faculty? Full professors, who are well paid and have job security, often teach one or two courses a semester. Academic research may be important but it is not the principal reason Ontario taxpayers spend $6.2 billion a year on postsecondary education.

Is there room for more co-operation among Ontario’s 19 publicly funded universities? If York had been able to offer some of its students the opportunity to attend classes at other universities during the strike, the disruption might not have been as great.

Should universities be required to have a contingency plan, heading into difficult labour negotiations? If York had made arrangements to deliver some of its courses online, offer tutorials off-site, or reopen its campus incrementally (as it did with its law and business schools), the impact of the strike could have been lessened.

York may have to undergo some painful restructuring. It may have to rethink academic perks such as tenure. It may have to suspend the practice of offering graduate students teaching opportunities to help defray their expenses. It may have to become smaller to reduce its dependence on CUPE 3903.

This is strong medicine. But York University is a sick school.

Two held on cheque fraud charges

Durham Regional Police busted a counterfeit cheque manufacturing lab and arrested two York University students from Nigeria, wrote the National Post Jan. 28. On Jan. 15, officials with TD Corporate Security contacted the force’s major fraud unit after someone made $115,000 in unauthorized withdrawals from an account.

Investigators say the fraudster threatened a TD employee working at a Pickering branch with death and received confidential banking information from her. Police tracked the suspect to a home in Toronto and raided the premises Thursday, seizing thousands of blank business cheques, high-end printers and counterfeit Canada Post stamps. They also found dozens of business cheques believed to be stolen from the mail, letters to be mass-mailed regarding a fake lottery win and personal information from thousands of people across the country and in the United States. “The victims have been contacted and TD bank will be covering any losses,” Detective Mark Stone said.

Oluwatosin Olay Sanni, 19, and Ibhade Arebamen, 22, are facing a number of charges.

On air

  • James Laxer, political science professor in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, spoke about government economic policies on Toronto’s CFRB Radio Jan. 27. He also spoke about the global economic crisis on CBC Newsworld Jan. 25. 
  • Joe Baker, professor in York’s Faculty of Health, spoke about his recent study about small towns and professional athletes on Kitchener’s CKGL Radio Jan. 27.
  • Joanne Duklas, University registrar, spoke about degree fraud on Global TV Jan. 24.
  • David Dewitt, professor in the York Centre for International Security Studies, spoke about Middle East conflict on CBC Newsworld Jan. 25.