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Thank you, CUPE 3903

January 31st, 2009     by Stark Koenig     Comments

Last night I received a call from York University asking me for current alumni information (they are one of my Alma Maters) and to talk about “recent happenings at York University”. I told them that after the way the university has treated their striking workers over the last three months, I have no wish to have any affiliation with York University. Here’s why:

After a long and gruelling strike that saw a near complete lack of cooperation on the part of York administration towards CUPE 3903, the Ontario government has elected to legislate the striking workers back to work. Throughout the last few months the local presses have been filled with misconstruction about the strike, students and workers have been pitted against one another, and York itself has been both unwilling to negotiate a fair deal with the people upon whom its reputation and operation is dependent and unaccountable for its own irresponsibility to accommodate its workers. Shame!

Photo courtesy of Alex Pylyshyn.

Let me address some of the misconceptions and the sad directions that have arisen from this strike. Detractors claimed that the striking workers were making unreasonable demands, which was utter falsity.

Although the strike began on November 6th, the negotiations for new contracts had been in the works since July, meaning that these workers were working for the first two months of the semester without any contract at all to protect them. The pass at an offer initially made by York represented a 1.4% decrease in their pay and benefits package in relation to inflation. These workers, many of whom have families, many of whom pay tuition on top of their living expenses, are living at far below the poverty level. In almost no other profession is such a highly skilled labour force expected to work for such low wages.

York University depends on this workforce for two main reasons: first, the research that is accomplished and published by grad students and faculty at any university is what gives that university its credit and rank; second, York in particular relies on the work of teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty do over 50% of the teaching work at the university.

So at the end of this school year, when upwards of 90 tenured professors are planning to retire and only 3 are scheduled to be hired, the people expected to take up the slack in that workload, without any commensurate benefits, are some very disillusioned grad students and contract faculty. And those three tenured faulty will find their plates full of advisory boards and recommendations that contract faculty cannot fulfill. York is effectively shooting off its own foot.

The so-called “negotiation” process was barely that; out of the 85 days that the workers were on strike, York administrators came to the table on only 11 days—-on 4 of which via a third party mediator rather than in person. Is this what we call “good faith”? By the end of the strike, CUPE members had given up on any demands for wage increases and held only to benefits such as contracts that would last longer than 3 months at a time. Even that was refused by York.

Despite dozens of peaceful rallies (during one of which in the last week the 3903 police liaison was tackled by two police officers who proceeded to kneel on her, threatening those who tried to assist her with tasers, arrested, and kept in jail overnight when she refused to sign a bail agreement saying that she would never attend a rally again), the Liberal government has pushed through a back-to-work legislative order.

Photo courtesy of Alex Pylyshyn.

Back-to-work legislation is an outrage! This sort of legislation, especially in a situation where the administrators demonstrated a complete refusal to negotiate at all, subverts the legal right to collective bargaining, sends a message that public sector employers needn’t negotiate with their workers, and sets a precedent of crushing dissent. This strike and the resulting legislation has implications not only for the students and staff of York University, but for public sector workers all across this country. The precedent has been set.

Students and faculty together are disillusioned with the results of this strike. Many students have looked into enrolling elsewhere, numerous staff and faculty members have discussed resignation, and at least one faculty member has made her disappointment with the university public.

I just want to thank CUPE 3903 and all of its supporters for their ongoing struggle and fortitude. After months of tough struggle and little outside support, I think CUPE 3903 members and their supporters deserve a round of applause for standing up against the increasing devaluation of their work.

Tags: activist report, news flash

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