Still striking to win at York University

March 18, 2015

Jordy Cummings, a teaching assistant and PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, reports from the picket lines on a hard-fought battle for a fair union contract.

ON MARCH 2, after many months of bargaining, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903, representing contract faculty (adjuncts), teaching assistants, research assistants and graduate assistants at York University voted overwhelmingly to reject our employer's concessionary and outright insulting "final offer." As of midnight, we were on strike.

This occurred within a few days of Unit 1, representing the TAs and other academic workers at the University of Toronto, rejecting their own employers' final offer. This practically unprecedented situation--nearly 10,000 academic workers on strike at two of the biggest universities in Canada--has galvanized the broad left and social movements here in Toronto.

In a fit of hyperbole that was perhaps apropos, one rank-and-file member of Local 3903 said at the final offer general membership meeting that this was a "world historical event." Maybe not world historical, but to have this many academic workers on strike is unique, to my knowledge, in Canadian labor history.

Striking CUPE members, students and faculty rally at the entrance to York University
Striking CUPE members, students and faculty rally at the entrance to York University (CUPE Ontario)

Rank-and-file activists in Local 3903 had worked for months in preparing for a strike, sometimes butting heads with a cautious executive committee and national bureaucracy in CUPE. Even with all these fetters, a strong rank-and-file culture coalesced, including veterans of two previous Local 3903 strikes, in 2000 and in 2008, along with many newer members.

Remarkably, a strong core of members has developed outside of traditionally active departments like Political Science. Indeed, at strike committee meetings, political scientists sit alongside neuroscientists, across from biologists, and just down the table from experts in public health, critical disability studies and more than a few social workers.

Unlike in 2008, the left wing of Local 3903 isn't wracked by infighting. We are united in our desire to "strike to win," which has been our slogan in all three of our strikes over the last 15 years.

THE FIRST four days of the strike saw events moving fast. Indeed, there were a few of those proverbial "days in which weeks happen." A genuine culture of care and solidarity was forming, and alliances were built with both undergraduate students and tenured faculty, including well-known left theorists like David McNally, among many other progressive faculty members. People and organizations which had never worked well together found themselves united in a common cause.

What you can do

A solidarity rally with York and University of Toronto workers is planned for Saturday, March 21, at 1 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto.

For updates on the battle at York, see the CUPE 3903 Rank and File Network Facebook page.

Veterans of the "Maple Spring" student movement in Quebec in 2012 have played a key role in developing our infrastructure. We saw an astoundingly quick differentiation of various infrastructures around strike logistics, picket captains and coordinators, and a communications committee that already has put out the first issue of its newspaper. An amazing social media strategy also developed.

On Thursday evening, March 5, the employer made a pass--that is to say, sent a new offer to the bargaining team, and rank-and-file members, alongside the bargaining team, spent a long Friday in a boardroom at the Ministry of Labour, perusing this offer and attempting to put together a counter.

The primary demands include job security for Unit 2 (contract faculty/adjuncts), tuition indexation for all graduate students in unit 1 (TAs) and Unit 3 (GAs and RAs), minimum guaranteed funding to bring GAs and RAs closer to the poverty line, and LGBTQ members being recognized as an equity-seeking group in hiring practices. It is still a mystery to our membership why an avowedly progressive institution like York University doesn't consider LGBTQ members to be an equity-seeking group.

York's bargaining team seemed more willing to concede on monetary demands than on fair hiring practices for our membership.

The presence of rank-and-file members at this meeting of the bargaining team is part of what we in Local 3903 call "bargaining from below." This is our long-held practice of ensuring that all meetings of the union's committees are open to all members, be it the executive committee or the bargaining team. While only Exec and BT members are able to vote at these meetings, rank-and-file members, especially those with institutional memory of a previous strike or two, play an incredibly positive role in ensuring that the structurally conservatizing qualities of collective bargaining are counterbalanced by encouragement to stay the course, stay brave and play a role in our effort to strike to win.

In the evening hours of that eventful Friday, the mediator took what the employer was calling a "one-time offer" back to the bargaining team and the collected rank-and-file members. This offer did not meet any of our key strike demands at all, although it did offer some gains, primarily to those contract faculty members with high seniority.

After much deliberation, the bargaining team--mistakenly, in my opinion--agreed to bring this offer to the membership. Astoundingly, though with notable dissents from progressive Exec members, this offer was brought before the membership and recommended by the executive committee as a body.

Contract faculty thus accepted the new collective agreement, while TAs, Gas and RAs voted to stay on--to strike to win. This "no vote" occurred in the context of an astounding mobilization, inside and outside of Local 3903, including a letter from 54 former Exec and BT members over the last 17 years, reading like a who's who of the Canadian left. (Local 3903 has published a summary of the university's current offer at its website.)

THE PROGRESSIVE elements of Unit 2 thus continued to "be on strike" with Unit 1 and Unit 3, as there were no plans, at the time at least, to restart classes--in the 2008 strike, classes were canceled for the duration of the strike, which lasted 85 days.

The infrastructure of the strike kept getting more sophisticated, like a well-oiled machine. While there were always issues to deal with--notably, some pretty disgusting displays of racism, sexism and ableism--the strike developed a rhythm, and more and more new friendships developed. Students of critical and Marxist theory saw with their own eyes the primacy of praxis in class struggle. To paraphrase Springsteen, we learn more from a day on the picket line than we ever learned in school.

In turn, due to rank-and-file support, the bargaining team has, thus far, stayed the course, and not budged from our red lines--in particular, tuition indexation, itself the key issue that makes Local 3903 unique. We bargain as workers for our lives as graduate students--in 1998, we won a clause in our collective agreement (in the face of the deregulation of tuition by a right-wing provincial government) that guaranteed than any increase in tuition would be met with a commensurate increase in our funding.

In 2000, this was the key issue that Local 3903 struck and won over, and for 14 years, York has honored this part of our collective agreement--one that we take for granted. Yet in 2014, international students' tuitions were increased by $7,000. This raised the specter of a wholesale reinterpretation of this particular language in our collective agreement, so the BT and members are demanding that York "tighten" this language and refund international students who have paid increased tuition in the last year.

This hits master's students the hardest. Graduate assistants and research assistants, if they are internationals, have been known to get paychecks marked zero dollars. The membership of CUPE Local 3903 has identified this as our key issue, one upon which no compromise can be made.

Late last week, the University Senate executive met over a number of days "in camera" (confidentially), and a decision was made by a narrow vote--and announced March 16--that classes would begin again, raising the prospect of scabbing and/or making the university unmanageable, given that university policy guarantees no recrimination, formal or otherwise, against any student, graduate or undergraduate, to cross the picket line.

As this article was being written, whole faculties are revolting, and the York University Faculty Association has filed a mass policy grievance, effectively casting doubt on the resumption of classes, at least among the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies and the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Nevertheless, the attempt is being made to reopen the campus, and there were numerous incidents on the picket lines on Tuesday, March 17, with people being threatened, spit at and, in one case, struck by a car. Yet the morale of the membership is still high. Our capacities are still developing, not just to strike to win, but to work for a better world--to change our entire way of seeing higher education.

Further Reading

From the archives