Blame York’s strike on public demand for cheap education

The York University strike, which has been the longest in English-Canadian academic history, is coming to an end without a hint of a solution to any of the systemic problems of which it was a symptom, wrote the National Post’s Stephen Marche Jan. 31. Strikes create situations where spectators choose sides. Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy – the administration or the union? But the right person to blame is you. It’s your fault.

By you, I mean the taxpayers and citizens of Canada, who have asked the impossible of Canadian universities: widely accessible high-quality education on the cheap.

The administrators, for their part, have responded to this situation by hiring an army of teaching assistants and sessionals, who are vastly cheaper than regular faculty.

The outrageousness of the York union’s demands did not help their case, and their militancy was off-putting and, in the end, a strategic mistake. The status quo, however, is equally outrageous. Now the administrators and the governments to whom they are responsible have to ask themselves how they became so beholden to their hired guns.

The York strike has laid bare two realities of academic life that are usually hidden from general view:

  • TAs and sessionals are the university now, de facto if not de jure. Most students at a Canadian university are going to be taught, for the most part, by contract faculty. The administrators, by making university life so dependent on TAs and sessionals, have unwittingly given them power.
  • The value of contract faculty goes completely unrecognized. They are the soldiers in the trenches of culture and they are paid peanuts for one of the most important jobs in our society.

Please don’t ask me to weep for the students. They should feel quite comfortable taking their 5,278 Canadian dollars to a comparable American university to see what it will buy them. If we’re all weeping for the students, why don’t we fund their studies properly rather than asking their teachers to work for nothing.

A larger reckoning is at hand. More strikes are coming, and at places more conservative and larger than York. As trying as they are in the short term, strikes such as the one at York will improve universities eventually; the shock of crisis is the only way to wake up politicians and the populace at large.

Back-to-work legislation could sour Ontario’s labour relations

The government settled a contentious 12-week strike at York University last week by legislating teachers back into the classroom – a move some say may have soured relations with unions in the midst of negotiating new contracts, reported The Canadian Press Feb. 4.  

Correctional officers, secondary school teachers, public elementary teachers and several universities are all in talks for new contracts at a time when the government has fewer means to address union demands. 

Canadian work stoppages fewer but longer

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 Jan. 29, 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 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.

Emergency labour legislation by any level of government in Canada has become an increasingly rare event. “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.

“Usually one of the social partners has greater strength at the bargaining table. Both parties, this time, when they go to bargaining, are very weak,” said Benimadhu. “Because of this weakness, you’re going to see greater collaboration between the two.”

Nursing home abuse numbers don’t tell whole story: doctor

A doctor who regularly consults with nursing home staff on patient care across Cape Breton says a recent report on complaints of patient abuse by staff in Nova Scotia nursing homes doesn’t tell the whole story, reported the Cape Breton Post Jan. 31.

Dr. Jeanne Ferguson, a geriatric psychiatrist in Sydney who specializes in seniors’ mental health issues within the Cape Breton District Health Authority, said staff in long-term care facilities are far more likely to experience violence from patients and the province needs to provide more resources to reduce the overall incidence of abuse.

A study published last year by York University – comparing incidents of violence experienced by support workers in long-term care facilities in Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia with similar facilities in Europe – found that Canadian workers experience an extraordinary amount of physical, verbal and sexual violence. The study, called Out of Control: Violence Against Personal Support Workers in Long-Term Care, stated that 43 per cent of personal support workers are subject to violence every day. It also said one in six registered nurses and one in four licensed practical nurses and other nurses and assistants were subjected to violence daily.

Mali kora musician performs at York  

African concerts don’t come more stripped-down than a single, acoustic, instrumental player, which makes tonight’s show by Ballaké Sissoko all the more rare and appealing, wrote reviewer John Goddard in the Toronto Star Feb. 5. Sissoko plays kora, the 21-string West African harp. It is the lead instrument of traditional griot, or jeli, musicians descended from the Mande imperial culture of 700 years ago, and still thriving in parts of Mali, Guinea, Gambia and Senegal.  

"I spent a week with him at a music seminar in Crete," says York University music Professor and kora player Robert Simms, explaining the connection that helped him land the act for a special three-part Performing Diaspora concert series at York. "I hung out with him and watched him, how he uses his hands, spinning out variations," Simms says. "I realized he is one of the most brilliant improvisers on any instrument, in any tradition – a very gifted musician." 

Legal definition of murder differs in Canada and US

In the United States, under a legal concept known as the felony murder rule, it’s not uncommon for prosecutors to bring a murder charge against a defendant who doesn’t intentionally harm a victim, reported the Associated Press Jan. 29.

Not so in Canada, says Alan Young, a lawyer and professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. "In Canada, the bottom line is this: You cannot call something murder without subjective foresight of death," Young says. "The person charged has to have been aware of the likelihood, or certainty, of death from their actions. No accidents can ever be called murder in Canada – they have to be manslaughter."

Stars shine brightest on Web thanks to York University

You can get up close and personal with the galaxies thanks to York University, reported Metroland’s Jan. 30. Beginning Monday, the University begins to broadcast images of stars on the Internet.

The Department of Physics & Astronomy will also host an interactive online forum to answer your questions and take requests on where to move their telescopes in order to view star clusters or planets. Access is free and is open to astronomy buffs and the curious, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Science & Engineering and director of the campus observatory Paul Delaney says.

You will get a chance to see images from meteors and satellites to the Orion nebula, the moon and high-magnification of the planets, he said. "As the year unfolds, we will look at a variety of objects and be ready to observe targets of special interest," Delaney says.

Don’t fumble big projects again

The $12 billion allocated by Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty for building public infrastructure in last week’s budget is welcome, wrote The Toronto Sun Feb. 1. But to be effective, it must be spent quickly on worthwhile capital projects, employing local workers whose paycheques will help boost the local economy.

The bad news is most of the funding Flaherty has earmarked for infrastructure still has to flow through the Building Canada Fund. The extension of the Spadina subway north to York University and into Vaughan is a classic example of problems with that fund.

First, even with local governments and Queen’s Park on side, it took two-and-a-half years to get federal approval. Second, while this new line (pushed hard by Queen’s Park for political reasons) will be a nice addition to the transit network, there are more pressing transit needs Toronto would have focused on if left to make its own decisions.

Prof complains about airport noise

Stephen Fleming is on his last nerve, reported the Brampton Guardian Jan. 30. He says not only has aircraft traffic over his south-Brampton neighbourhood increased considerably in the past year, planes departing from Pearson Airport also manoeuvre at low altitudes. The engine noise is relentless.

Airport officials insist they haven’t changed anything procedurally, but Fleming is certain the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is up to something – and he wants it to stop. "This whole area gets flooded with (aircraft) noise. And we are talking about constant droning that can be heard from inside the house as well," says Fleming, a psychology professor in York University’s Faculty of Health.

Alan Middleton’s last stupid purchase

I’m a souvenir craftaholic. When I travel, I must buy a souvenir. No, not the tacky, mass-made-in-China stuff, but anything painted, carved or moulded by local artists or artisans, confessed Alan Middleton, executive director of York’s Schulich Executive Education Centre, in The Globe and Mail Feb. 2. 

And it’s this addiction that has led me down the path marked stupidity. I now have owls from Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Myanmar, Peru, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the US. The stupidity is that I feel compelled to buy even when the owl is badly sculpted, just plain ugly, ridiculously expensive and not very representative of local flora and fauna.

Last year I was on Easter Island. Wonderful place. What did I bring back? Wonderful local art or carvings? No. A badly sculpted, ugly, ridiculously expensive, unrepresentative owl.

Michael Bryant’s star burned bright early

His biggest problem – he’ll be the first to admit – is pacing himself, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Report On Business Magazine Jan. 30. Osgoode grad Michael Bryant (LLB ’92) knows that with boxing gloves on, speed is his advantage. “I always try to end a bout before the third round,” he says with a laugh. That means delivering a knockout blow to the other guy before Bryant himself loses steam. TKOs may come in handy in the rough-and-tumble life of provincial politics, but as Ontario’s minister of economic development – the guy overseeing a bailout for the ailing auto sector – the 42-year-old will need endurance, too.

The parallels with political life aren’t hard to see – it’s technically a team sport, but success comes down to individual performance. Bryant is a lawyer by training, and his star burned bright early on: As a novice at venerable New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP (he graduated from York’s Osgoode Hall Law School in 1992, then did his master of laws at Harvard), he recalls a competition file he was given, with instructions to keep the billing down. The feeling was that the client couldn’t pay now, but was going places. That client was Microsoft.

Return a success for taekwondo athlete

Taekwondo athlete Shateesh Rai was joined on the podium at a local selection meet by his sister Pavitra Rai (BAS ’08), who finished third in the female bantam weight category, wrote the Brampton Guardian Jan. 29 in a feature story. Although she had her black belt, Pavitra had not been competing as she was concentrating on her studies in York University’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies. She graduated with a degree in business administration and decided to see how she would fare in competition.

Giant female sasquatches symbolize women’s sexuality

An exhibition of sculptures at Hamilton’s McMaster Museum of Art puts a new twist on the legend of the sasquatch, wrote The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton, NB) Jan. 30. The hairy creature is usually described as solitary and male, but Toronto-based artist Professor Allyson Mitchell has assembled “a congregation of anatomically correct females,” each one a monumental symbol of female brains, brawn and sexuality, says the southwestern Ontario museum.

The sasquatches are made of various components including glass eyes, fake fur and taxidermy materials. Mitchell said she wanted to take the idea of “the wild man of the forest” and think about “the possibility of the wild women of the forest.”

Mitchell’s work has been exhibited in galleries and festivals across Canada, the United States, Europe and East Asia. The self-described lesbian activist teaches cultural studies in York’s School of Women’s Studies.

York grad stars in Barrie’s Steel Magnolias

Candy Pryce, who worked as a professional actor for a number of years before moving to Barrie to raise her children, stars in South Simcoe Theatre’s production of Steel Magnolias, reported the Barrie Examiner Feb. 5. A 1985 graduate of York University with a BFA in theatre, Pryce first became a fan of community theatre at South Simcoe Theatre where she marked her first time back on the stage several years ago. Since then, she has appeared in shows with Talk is Free Theatre, and, last year, Sunshine & Company in Orillia and Theatre Collingwood. 

On air

  • Jonathan Rosenthal (LLB ’87), a criminal defence lawyer, adjunct professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and legal spokesperson for Beyond Borders, an anti-child abuse organization, discussed whether beauty pageant shows for toddlers are exploitation or are cute, on the “Gary Doyle Show”, CKGL-AM, Kitchener, Feb. 4. 
  • Bobby Noble, professor in York’s School of Women’s Studies, discussed how sex changes are not a choice but a psychological necessity for transsexuals, on “Panorama”, TFO-TV Feb. 4.