York issues are system-wide, says Shoukri

York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri says the labour strife that shut down the University for three months is a sign of larger problems that need to be addressed at the provincial level, wrote The Globe and Mail Jan. 30.

Just hours after back-to-work legislation was passed by the Ontario government and routine activity began to return to the sprawling campus, Shoukri said questions of funding and the use of contract faculty extend beyond the country’s third-largest university.

So, too, does the question of protecting the rights of students and institutional integrity while preserving the principle of collective bargaining, he said.

Shoukri urged Premier Dalton McGuinty to follow through on his proposal, made earlier this week, to create an education-relations commission for postsecondary institutions that would better protect the interests of students. “Do I believe the labour relations issues on the York campus are only related to York? My answer is no,” Shoukri said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “The issues that led to the strike are system-wide issues,” he said. “We need to look at them and deal with them and we need to be realistic in light of the needs of our students, in light of the financial reality and in light of people’s right to have secure jobs and have clarity as to what is going on.”

McGuinty said he had no choice but to intervene and bring an end to the strike, but said other universities should turn to collective bargaining rather than the legislature to resolve their labour disputes. “I will encourage all parties involved in these kinds of issues, both at York University and at all other Ontario universities, to understand the consequences of the failure of these kinds of negotiations and to do everything within their power to ensure that these matters are resolved amicably and upfront as soon as possible,” he said after the bill passed.

Shoukri said he was unwilling to second-guess the actions of the province but that the lessons learned at York would be useful in any provincial efforts at reform. “This should be an eye-opener to the entire postsecondary system.”

He said he rejected an 11th-hour appeal from the Premier to resume talks out of concern that it would compromise the back-to-work legislation. “We were concerned that moving into such an impossible situation where you try to do in one day what we failed to do over such a long period of time with the help of two mediators, you would undermine the legal basis of the legislation. If we could have seen a real potential, we would have done it,” he said.

Shoukri said his job now is to help the University overcome what he characterized as a “huge setback” and mend the school’s poor record on labour relations.

Arthur Hilliker, president of the York University Faculty Association, said returning to normal will not be an easy task, with faculty divided on issues related to the strike and students upset. “This is a tense time and people are quite apprehensive about going back to class,” he said. “I hope things rapidly adjust themselves.”

Also yesterday, the University of Toronto announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the union representing its teaching assistants.

  • York University was buzzing yesterday as students returned to campus and scrambled to get a head start before being besieged with schoolwork when classes restart Monday, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 30.

Pickets were down, buses were back on campus and the food court near the students’ centre was packed with dozens of anxious undergraduates hunched over their laptops reading or taking notes.

“It doesn’t look like a ghost town any longer,” said Nicole Abbaticchio, a third-year communications student. “Everyone is excited and eager to get back. This has been a waste of time. Now we’ll be cramming – so much to do and so little time.”

Students were glad to be back at school but terrified of being swamped with schoolwork. “We will probably be packing two months (work) into two weeks,” said Lucas Dixon, a first-year English student, using his laptop in the food court.

First-year students Karla Bonilla and Stefani Pletsch were also catching up with schoolwork. Bonilla, an international studies student, said she had been emailing her professors so she could know what to expect for the weeks to come. “Just looking at the course outlines makes my head swim,” she said. “I should have kept up but it’s hard when there are no classes and no motivation.”

University spokesperson Alex Bilyk said students would not be swamped with assignments. “The schedule has been redone for the year. Each Faculty is compressing course work as required but all educational components remain,” he said, adding new plans have been approved by the Senate.

No extra or late-night classes have been scheduled, said Bilyk. “We want things to be normal for students.”

But students say it will take a long time for the anger and bitterness to disappear. “I couldn’t even work because I wasn’t sure when the strike would be over,” said Becky Voll, a second-year kinesiology student.”

Abeera Savundararasa, a third-year administrative studies student, said her friend couldn’t get into law school as she couldn’t get transcripts in time.”

  • York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri denies he went missing during the longest campus strike in English-speaking Canada and says he turned down Premier Dalton McGuinty’s personal request this week to return to negotiations because of fears it could put back-to-work legislation at risk, wrote the Toronto Star Jan. 30.

“We had credible legal opinion that to go back to the table could undermine the process of back-to-work legislation,” said Shoukri yesterday. “Given there were only 40 hours before the decision in the Legislature, we were very worried about causing a distraction or delay to this process.”

Shoukri said there was slim hope of hammering out a deal when “six months of negotiations that included 42 days of face-to-face talks, more than 11 weeks of strike and the involvement of two mediators had not produced a settlement.

“The two sides were very far apart,” said Shoukri.

While the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903 said it was eager to return to talks, Shoukri said the quickest way to get students back to class was to end the strike and send the dispute to binding arbitration.

Yesterday McGuinty would not comment on Shoukri’s reason for refusing to resume talks but said only that he was “pleased that legislation was passed today that gets students back into the classroom.”

While both sides were pilloried over the strike on Facebook sites set up by both students and parents, Shoukri came under some personal fire for declining requests for public comment and not appearing in public as the strike dragged on.

But Shoukri argued that he was on campus each day, often speaking to students and staff, and that he did not want to distract from the work of expert negotiators. “I may have been low-profile to media, but I was on campus every single day of the strike, even over the holidays, from early in the morning to the evening and I attended committee meetings and visited labs and talked to junior faculty members about their concerns,” said Shoukri.

Also, he fielded questions after each of the three York Senate meetings held during the strike, he noted – the last one just last week, after union members rejected a forced vote on York’s latest offer.

For its part, the union also came under fire, for rejecting an offer of 9.25 per cent over three years at a time of global financial crisis and for cheering last week when a vote on that offer failed.

Yesterday, Shoukri said he was “delighted the nightmare is over,” but admitted the strike – the third at York in 12 years to extend classes into the summer – has battered the school’s morale and reputation in ways that will take work to repair. “It caused a hardship I saw in every eye I met on campus and I’m determined to work with my colleagues to ensure it never happens again,” he said.

Shoukri said York is considering financial assistance for students who will lose a month of potential summer earnings because they’ll be in class throughout May, although he would not say how much or who would be eligible.

Shoukri called it “unfortunate” that high-school applications to York for this fall are down 15 per cent but said he hopes in the coming months to help people realize “the many fine programs we have, and perhaps we’ll have an increase in applications. “If not, we will accept that and move forward,” he said, noting York will not lower its standards because there is less competition for spots.

York will extend the hours of the library and counselling services, and provide workshops on time management. York will also offer help to professors on how to compress their courses in a way that protects the academic integrity of the curriculum, he said.

  • Students at York University should be back in their classrooms on Monday after the Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation yesterday to force an end to a three-month-long strike at Canada’s third largest university, wrote the National Post Jan. 30.

The vote passed 61-8 with all those against from the NDP. Canadian Union of Public Employees spokesperson Tyler Shipley said the back-to-work legislation was an incredible disappointment and could set an ugly precedent for future labour disputes.

Opposition parties have slammed the Premier for his response to the strike – the Conservatives incensed the legislature wasn’t recalled sooner, and the NDP suggesting back-to-work legislation is an attempt to sweep the problem of post-secondary underfunding “under the rug.”

  • A Cape Breton graduate student attending York University will finally be returning to classes next week after the Ontario legislature passed back-to-work legislation Thursday afternoon, wrote the Cape Breton Post Jan. 30. “I’m excited to finally go back to school,” said Karen Power, who is enrolled in a master’s program in environmental studies. “It looks like I’ll be flying back on Tuesday.”

Power said she supports the students’ lawsuit, though it would not affect her directly. “I understand it,” she said. “I got funding for my program but for some people who have to pay for it themselves, they didn’t get what they paid for.”

  • At the York campus Thursday, students were relieved that classes would resume, but concerned about their job prospects and futures now that the academic year has been extended, wrote The Canadian Press Jan. 29.

“We students bank on summer,” said second-year business student Anthony Kahoro. “It’s the only time we can cash in.”

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the striking workers, said it won’t stop teachers from returning to class. But union spokesperson Tyler Shipley condemned the new law. “If the employer doesn’t like what you’re asking for, they can simply wait, sit back and wait,” he said at a rally outside the legislature.

The York Federation of Students said it’s asking the University to refund 12 per cent of students’ tuition because the academic year has been shortened by three weeks to 23 weeks. “Students are the victims in all this,” said President Hamid Osman. “I’m disappointed that it had to come to this. I’m upset with our administration taking a hard-line approach when it comes to negotiating, and I’m upset with the McGuinty government not funding our administration, not funding our universities.”

  • Many of York’s 50,000 students are worried about how much more difficult it will be to finish the year and land a job for the summer to help pay next year’s tuition, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 30.

International student Terrence Whittingham said a lot was riding on the school year finishing on time because his visa expires soon and he’ll have to go back to Jamaica. He said he was happy to hear about the 61-8 vote at Queen’s Park to force teaching staff back on the job. “I sympathize with CUPE workers but this thing has been going on for too long,” said the 31-year-old computer science student. “Basically, I’ve been home each day with nothing to do and ended up spending more money on groceries and an additional two months of housing rental.”

The University has condensed the class schedule by about two and a half weeks with the fall exams ending March 3 and the winter term beginning the next day. School is set to finish on June 2 – about a month later than a normal schedule.

A University spokesperson said they’ve taken away Reading Week in March but will still close the school on Feb. 16 for Family Day and May 18 for Victoria Day.

 At York’s Vari Hall, the York Federation of Students were passing out a student petition to get back 12 per cent of their tuition fees – an average of $600 – from the administration. “There’s so much more that we’re losing other than money,” said YFS spokesman Nilufar Zameni, 22. “There will be extra pressure on us. I’m glad we’re going back to class but, at the end of the day, it made the strike pointless.”

York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said that he hopes to make the students’ return as smooth as possible. During the first five days of class, students are not required to submit assignments that were due during the disruption or to take tests.

  • York students are returning to class Monday, but the province is still staring down the barrel of possible strikes at other universities and elementary public schools, wrote The Toronto Sun Jan. 30.

Tory MPP Peter Shurman said five other universities, including U of T, are in negotiation with CUPE staff. “This is not over yet,” Shurman said.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne, who earlier this week suggested that the York University situation might serve as a “cautionary tale” for elementary teachers, said yesterday that she remains hopeful that a solution will be found before labour disruption.

Following the vote, McGuinty urged all universities to understand the implications if they fail to reach a negotiated settlement and to resolve their issues as “amicably and up front” as possible.

CUPE 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley said the government has sent a negative message out to labour with its back-to-work legislation. “He has alienated workers across this province and there are a lot of us,” Shipley said. The legislation forces striking staff back to work but “the level of distrust and anger that we feel towards the administration, our employer, it’s tangible,” Shipley said.

  • Spokesperson Tyler Shipley said the union is angry the government of Premier Dalton McGuinty has taken away their collective bargaining rights, reported CBC.ca News Jan. 30. “This has sent the message to all employers across Ontario that if they don’t feel like bargaining, Queen’s Park will step in and bail them out,” he said.

But McGuinty denied it was a challenge to collective bargaining in the province, saying the legislation was meant to end an impasse. “This isn’t about taking sides. This is about getting 50,000 students back to school,” he said.

CUPE 3903, the union that represents the teaching and graduate assistants and contract faculty who spent more than 80 days on the picket line, says the conflict is not over and the issues that fuelled the dispute will spread far beyond York.

The president of the York University Federation of Students, Hamid Osman, agrees. “The University of Toronto has a strike vote,” said Osman. “Carleton had one. Ryerson had one. This is not only an issue at York.”

  • Various members of the York community spoke on radio and television about the strike Jan. 29.
    • Tyler Shipley, CIUPE3903 spokesperson, spoke on CBC TV (Toronto), CFMT-TV, CityTV, A Channel News (London and Ottawa), OMNI-TV and CBC Radio in Charlottetown, PEI, St. John’s, Nfld., Toronto, Halifax, NS, Montreal, PQ and Vancouver BC, AM640 News Radio, 680News Radio, AM900 Radio (Hamilton) CKPC-FM (Brantford), CKTB Radio (St. Catharines), CAN360 Radio, 570News Radio (Kitchener), 790CIGM Radio (Sudbury), CKBW (Bridgewater, NS),
    • Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, spoke on CityTV, CBC-TV and 790CIGM Radio (Sudbury)
    • Catherine Divaris, co-founder of YorkNotHostage.com spoke on AM640 News Radio, Q107 Radio,
    • York student Jason McFarlane spoke on Kitchener’s 570News Radio, 790CIGM Radio (Sudbury)
    • Laurie Erikson, teaching assistant at York, spoke on CBC Radio’s “Here & Now”.
    • Lyndon Koopmans, co-founder of YorkNotHostage.com, spoke on CityTV, CFTO-TV,
    • York student Karen Dhaliwal and Keele Campus business owner Carolo Ierullo, spoke on Global-TV
    • York student Nadia Thompson spoke on A Channel News (London and Ottawa)
    • York student Julia Boyd, spoke on CKSA-TV, Lloydminster, SK
    • York student Mira Modaresi, spoke on CTV Newsnet

Semantic ‘deadlock’ over York situation

In Ontario, the word upon which much hangs these days is “deadlock”, wrote columnist Jim Coyle in the Hamilton Spectator Jan. 30. This week, as debate continued on back-to-work legislation to end the 12-week-old strike by contract professors and teaching assistants at York University, NDP Leader Howard Hampton would have done an etymologist proud as he demanded a parsing of the term by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

In a display of Clintonian inventiveness, union representatives said this wasn’t a deadlock, but “a unilateral deadlock.” So in the legislature, Hampton prodded McGuinty to define deadlock and prove one existed. The premier was clearly dismayed that things had not gone as quickly as he wished. But he refused Hampton’s invitation to play define-that-word. “I’m not prepared to get into legal semantics, because I’m not qualified to do so.

“From a layman’s perspective, talks failed,” he said. “There was no reasonable prospect of progress. That’s why we’re here today.” There comes a time, he said, when “we are no longer so concerned about the issues themselves and the particular approach brought by each side,” just in getting students back in class. “At some point in time, we blow the whistle and say, ‘Time is up.’“

Ontario aims to counter drug firm sales pitches

Hoping to counter the influence of pharmaceutical-company representatives and their well-versed sales pitches, the Ontario government is joining a growing national movement to offer physicians one-on-one drug briefings that leave out the commercial bias, wrote the National Post Jan. 30.

Research suggests that visits by pharmaceutical reps, the heart of a multi-million-dollar marketing system, can inordinately skew doctors’ prescribing habits. The province is planning to fund independent experts to visit medical offices and offer a balanced, evidence-based take on drug treatment.

The idea is to co-opt a model – personal visits to doctors’ in their own offices – the industry showed was very effective, said Dr. Joel Lexchin, a profedssor in York University’s School of Health Policy & Management, Faculty of Health.

The Canadian drug business has curbed the wining and dining of physicians that used to go hand in hand with those visits, but the reps and their ability to win physicians’ trust still have a significant impact, he argued. “It’s that relationship that influences prescribing behaviour,” said Dr. Lexchin, who is also an emergency physician.

Dr. Lexchin said he hopes the Ontario service is administered at arm’s-length, not by the province itself. If doctors perceive the detailers to be government officials, they will assume the exercise is all about reducing drug costs and ignore their advice, he warned.

Tax cuts put money in the wrong hands

Our new federal budget unveiled Tuesday has a split personality, wrote Lisa Philipps, professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, in the Toronto Star Jan. 30. On the spending side it is fiscally liberal, claiming a large role for governments in fixing markets and sheltering the vulnerable. But the tax side was different.

Behind a thin veil of rhetoric about helping those most in need is a set of long-term tax cuts that seek a much-diminished role for governments in future. Because of this inner conflict, the tax side of the budget directly undermines the goals of the spending side. Here’s why:

The broad personal income tax cuts are not well targeted to lower and middle earners, the folks most likely to spend every extra dollar on consumer goods. The largest cut will go to those earning more than $80,000, a group more likely to save its extra dollars or use them to pay down debt. This is Group B and they are the top 8 per cent of tax filers, most of them men. These cuts make no sense, either as a stimulus measure or as targeted help for those most in need. They only make sense if the goal is to diminish, over time, the government’s role in moderating income inequalities.

On air

  • Bruce Ryder, professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke about a human rights case involing a Sikh security guard’s headdress on CBC Radios’ “Metro Morning” Jan. 29.
  • Elizabeth Dauphinee, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke about President Barak Obama’s upcoming visit to Canada on CTV Newsnet, Jan. 29.
  • Bernie Wolf, economics professor in the Schulich School of Busines at York Unviersity, spoke about the auto industry on CTV Newsnet Jan. 29.
  • Michael Payton, a York cognitive psychology student, took part in a panel discussion about whether God exists on CTS-TV’s “Michael Coren Show” Jan. 29.