Lessons from a strike

As York University students head back to classes today after suffering through a three-month-long strike, it’s welcome news that the province is looking for ways to keep this from happening again, wrote the Toronto Star Feb. 2 in an editorial.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has raised the idea of an independent commission that would monitor bargaining and sound the alarm when a strike jeopardized the school year. That would give the politicians more objective criteria for the introduction of back-to-work legislation.

Commissions of this type have been used to monitor labour disputes at schools and community colleges. A similar body for universities would have been most useful during the protracted strike at York, where 50,000 students were left wondering what would become of their school year while the government stayed at arm’s-length. And next year, a commission may be even more necessary.

The issues that led to the bargaining impasse at York – funding for teaching assistants and using lower-paid contract faculty instead of hiring more tenured professors – are not exclusive to that campus. CUPE Ontario is vowing to push hard on these, and other issues, in 2010 when contracts for faculty and support workers expire at at least a dozen universities across the province. The government would be wise to have a structure in place before then to monitor these negotiations and ensure the needs of students aren’t forgotten.

York should also embrace change. After three strikes by two different unions in the last 12 years, the administration would do well to look at how it conducts labour relations. While CUPE Local 3903’s demands were excessive, particularly given the current economic downturn, it takes two for labour negotiations to deteriorate as they did.

The union spokesperson had it right when he said the students were "sick of being used as a pawn of a larger game". But it was an incongruous statement from the union, which demanded a two-year contract so it could be part of a future coordinated labour movement in which students would be the pawns.

McGuinty eventually did the right thing by legislating an end to the strike last week, but he made several false steps. In an apparent effort to deflect criticism from himself, he needlessly tarred York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. Two provincial mediators had already determined there was nothing to be gained by continued negotiations, so to suggest, as McGuinty did, that Shoukri erred by not going back to the table while the legislature was debating a bill to end the strike was absurd.

The government also erred when it floated a Supreme Court ruling as a reason for not legislating an end to the strike earlier. The union threw that red herring back in McGuinty’s face when the government introduced back-to-work legislation a few days later.

If there is anything good to emerge from the York strike, it would be an arm’s-length body attuned to the needs of university students during labour disruptions.

York strike and CUPE strife are harbingers of things to come

Classes resumed Monday for 50,000 students at York University after last week’s passage of back-to-work legislation, but the fallout from the 12-week strike that crippled Canada’s third-largest University will be felt for some time, reported The Globe and Mail Feb. 2.

The local union representing 3,300 teaching staff and contract workers has emerged bitterly divided with its national wing. York’s own reputation has been battered, with applications from high-school students down 15 per cent. And beyond the University’s sprawling campus in suburban Toronto, there are concerns that the strike is just the beginning of more labour strife to come at universities and public elementary schools in Ontario.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents York workers, is in talks with four other Ontario universities, while the province’s 70,000 public elementary teachers have given local school boards until Feb. 13 to show their hands or risk job action that includes a possible strike by late March.

The spectre of more workers walking the picket lines would be a setback for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who spent his first term in office restoring labour peace in the province’s hospitals and classrooms.

New Democratic Party Leader Howard Hampton said the York strike set a bad precedent because many universities face a similar problem to York, where the central issue was greater job security for contract teachers. "The feeling they are being used and abused is growing stronger all the time," he said.

Observers say no one involved in the York strike has emerged unscathed, including University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, CUPE Local 3903 and the provincial government. "Frankly, at every level there has to be some shame worn on this one," said Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman, who has criticized the government for not intervening sooner.

McGuinty introduced back-to-work legislation on Jan. 25 after the province’s top labour mediator concluded the two sides were deadlocked. But sources close to the talks said deep-rooted animosity between CUPE Local 3903 and its national office lessened the chances of reaching a negotiated settlement.

The local’s relations with the national office have been strained since a strike at York in 2000, the sources said. The local felt that during that strike it was "sold out" by the national office, which had pushed for a settlement, the sources said. This time, tensions mounted when the local refused to allow anyone from the national office to participate in bargaining with York management, the sources said. "I have never seen it this bad," said a source close to CUPE. The local engaged instead in "participatory bargaining", a process that involved giving several grassroots members a voice at the table rather than just leaving bargaining up to the local’s executive committee.

For York’s negotiators, this created confusion, with no clear lines of authority or indication of who was calling the shots for CUPE, said an official close to the talks. At one point, he said, the local had 25 members at the bargaining table. "There’s always going to be tension between the interests of a local union and those of a national umbrella operation," said Local 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley. "I think we were all appreciative of the help and support we did get from CUPE national. I’m going to leave it at that."

As late as last week, as the back-to-work legislation was being debated during an emergency sitting of the legislature, the local’s position remained mired in confusion. Shipley said the union was willing to settle with York and had dropped many of its demands. At the urging of CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan, Hampton telephoned the premier Tuesday morning and asked him to ask York’s president to make one last trip to the bargaining table. "I told the premier the union is ready to go back to the bargaining table," Hampton said.

But Shoukri had a different impression. After six months negotiating with the union, including 42 days of face-to-face talks, the two sides remained at an impasse, he said. "If we could have seen a real potential we would have done it," he said.

  • Ontario’s Liberal government may have settled a contentious 12-week strike at York University this week but it’s facing a flurry of other contract negotiations at a time when it has fewer means to address union demands, reported The Canadian Press Feb. 1. The province is in the middle of negotiating contracts with its correctional officers as well as secondary teachers, public elementary teachers and staff at various levels at McMaster, Trent, Lakehead and Laurentian universities.
  • Two long strikes that are coming to an end are a sign of a new trend in work stoppages in Canada, reported The Vancouver Sun Jan. 31. On Thursday the Ontario government moved to end an 84-day strike at York University and the City of Ottawa announced the capital’s 51-day transit strike had ended.

“Canadian strikes are becoming longer – not necessarily more in number, but longer in duration,” said Anil Verma, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Toronto. Verma said a spate of union mergers over the last few years have left unions bigger and with larger strike funds. That means their members can last longer without a paycheque.

On the other side of the ledger, new technologies make employers better able to run bare-bones operations without unionized help, which means a company can last through longer strikes or lockouts.

In the case of the York University and Ottawa transit strikes, the length of each strike was the result of the determination of both workers and management before the work stoppage began to be able to dig in their heels and tough out a strike regardless of its length. In fact, if not for the intervention of governments they might not be ending.

The education sector has been Canada’s hot spot for labour trouble in the last year. Of the 14 major work stoppages that began last year, one-third were in the education sector. In addition to York, there were strikes in 2008 at McGill, Laval and Windsor universities and against the Calgary school district. In Ontario, parents are concerned that teachers in the province’s primary schools could go on strike this spring.

“The number of days lost due to strikes and lockout has been going down in Canada for a long time,” said Prem Benimadhu, a vice-president of the Conference Board of Canada and supervisor of that think-tank’s research on industrial relations in Canada. “I don’t see these examples – York and [Ottawa] – as any sort of harbinger in labour relations.”

If there is a trend in labour relations in Canada, Benimadhu believes it is the weakness on both sides of the bargaining table. Employers, be they public or private sector, simply don’t have extra cash for employee wage gains and, yet, if there is a strike or a work stoppage they risk losing customers or public support. They have to try to convince employees to accept other kinds of non-wage improvements.

Unions are the mirror of that problem. They depend for their revenue on the dues paid by members. They do not want layoffs, which would cut into their membership base and revenue. Their members, fearful of losing their jobs in tough times, are less likely to push for wage gains. As a result, unions, too, can be more accommodating.

Higher education? Aim lower

Forty years ago, a university education was still largely confined to the (relatively) privileged elites. Today, every kid who’s smarter than a turnip is expected to go, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente in a Jan. 31 column. Universities are vast credentialing factories whose main function is to certify that their graduates are intelligent enough to hold down jobs in the knowledge economy. This sea change is what underlies the devastating strike at York University – the second this decade – which shut down the campus for nearly three months and gave that institution the kind of reputation the post office used to have. The strike was just a symptom.

Universities are simply not set up to do the job we ask of them. And the more kids we cram through the system, the more broken it looks.

Modern universities have their roots in medieval times, when eager pupils would pay to attach themselves to some great scholar. The idea of a liberal education is still based on that model – "healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting," as humanities professor Stanley Fish puts it. That description still more or less applied to the education I got. It still applies to a few elite universities today, such as Harvard, which is so well endowed that top professors are supposed to take their students out to lunch. It certainly does not describe York, a sprawling campus on Toronto’s edge where most students commute, and many are the first generation in their families to attend postsecondary school.

Under increasing financial pressure, universities like York have replaced expensive tenured professors with cheap contract labour – graduate students or itinerant PhDs. In the United States, tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up just 35 per cent of the teaching workforce, and Canada is headed in the same direction.

Meantime, professors get ahead by researching, not teaching. They spend shockingly little time in the classroom. The benefit to mankind of all that research (much of which is read by virtually no one) is not for me to judge.

Some people – professors, graduate students, the NDP and the union that inconvenienced 50,000 students with its fantastical demands – imagine that once they can bring ignorant governments to their senses, the money will flow and the good old days will return. But they are wrong. The first problem is that there is no money, especially these days. The second problem is that universities are not terribly popular with the public, who tend to see them as a nest of richly subsidized tenured radicals who are overpaid and underworked. (Unfair, but not entirely.) Taxpayers are only willing to subsidize universities to the extent they believe they contribute to the national wealth.

The third problem is that a vast proportion of the student body neither wants nor needs a traditional liberal education anyway. They have no desire to sit at the feet of cloistered masters debating truth and beauty. They are essentially there for the credentials. The crazy CUPE local that shut down York is, in fact, among the least of its problems. The University is trapped in a system that has become dysfunctional, and it lacks the leadership, the courage and the backing to fix it.

After I blamed the union for the strike the other day (the union, by the way, has the support of both the faculty association and the typically nutty student union), I heard from Fred Lazar, a longtime York professor. He blasted my analysis to shreds. "The full-time faculty could have offered to pick up the courses taught by the members of CUPE so that the students would not be penalized," he says. "There might have been enough of us willing to do this so that the University would not have had to be shut down – a terrible decision by the president and the administration."

If full-time faculty were required to spend a bit more time teaching, he says, most of the part-time student teachers wouldn’t be needed. Technology could also help. "For all the introductory courses in each area and perhaps for second-year courses as well, the best teachers should be selected and their colleagues should write the scripts for the 36 hours of lectures, together with slide shows and other audio-visual aids," he says. "These people would then be taped, and the podcasts would be available for download. Students should be able to interact with the full-time faculty via the Internet. This would eliminate a lot of unnecessary teaching and eliminate CUPE."

These sensible ideas are probably too threatening ever to be adopted. But there is one place where they have taken hold. In fact, as Stanley Fish points out, the future of the university is already here. It’s called the University of Phoenix, a for-profit outfit that has spread across North America. It offers interactive online degrees and makes no pretense of valuing learning for its own sake. "Coming here is not a rite of passage," founder John Sperling says. "We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’ nonsense." Instead, what Phoenix delivers is the information and skills necessary to gain employment – quickly, efficiently and with high standards. At Phoenix, teachers are just part of the delivery system, and tenured professors as we know them have no place.

Although my liberal education was good for nothing, I am awfully glad I got it. And I am sorry that it’s doomed to disappear, concluded Wente.

York strike underscores NDP dilemma

The controversy about the York University strike was raging when Cheri DiNovo showed why it’s going to be hard for the New Democratic Party to govern Ontario again, began The Globe and Mail’s Murray Campbell in his Jan. 31 column.

Like other NDP MPPs, DiNovo was inundated with messages about the party’s refusal to go along with legislation ending the strike by contract faculty and teaching assistants. A third of the messages were positive, but two-thirds of them were not. She chose not to embrace those ones. "When you stand for something that’s right in principle and right ethically, even if the majority of the population stands against you, you are standing for history," she told the legislature.

Noble? Undoubtedly. But here’s the rub: Election victories are built on majorities and signalling beforehand that this isn’t important rather undercuts a campaign. It’s not a new dilemma for the NDP, this balancing of principle with pursuit of power. But it’s again finding currency as a new generation vies to take over leadership of the party in a March convention.

  • For a few fiery days, class war raged again last week at Queen’s Park in a sort of Norma Rae redux, wrote the Toronto Star’s Jim Coyle in a Feb. 2 column. As MPPs passed legislation ordering York University strikers back to work, the strains of Solidarity Forever wafted into the chamber from union protesters on the front lawns. Inside, rhetoric flew about the lavish lifestyles of fat cats and the pittances paid worker-serfs.

MPP Paul Miller (Hamilton East-Stoney Creek) mocked the York president’s preferring a "nice dinner in a nice club" to bargaining. His colleague Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale-High Park) seemed obsessed with the man’s office of "overstuffed chairs". That DiNovo likened working conditions at York to the age of Dickens, denouncing the school president for refusing to "get off the golf course" and bargain during one of the most snowbound weeks of the winter, spoke eloquently to the fact that the speechifying – though entertaining – occasionally parted way with reality.

After the NDP refused to accommodate immediate passage of the bill, the five days it took to do so became their show (some might say their folly). As much as the stand was based on a defence of collective bargaining, it was also an exercise in "narrow-casting" – a profession of faith in NDP fundamentals aimed most especially at the loyalists and union delegates gathering next month to choose a new leader.

Liberal and Progressive Conservative MPPs opted out of the debate. Voting to get students back in class was the sole issue, they said. "This isn’t about me and it’s not about you," PC Peter Shurman yelled at a government minister. The NDP didn’t get that memo.

  • The Toronto Star aimed a dart at New Democrat MPPs Jan. 31 for mindless obstructionism. The New Democrats have only 10 seats (out of 107) in the Ontario legislature, but they were able to use the house rules to hold up passage of legislation ending the strike at York University for five days. That delayed the return of 50,000 students to school for another week. The NDP argues that York bargained in bad faith and the province is underfunding postsecondary education. Fine. But those points could have been made in one day, not five, said the Star.  

On air

  • Anne MacLennan, communication studies professor in York’s Faculty of Arts, spoke about Super Bowl commercials on CBC Radio’s “Fresh Air” Feb. 1.