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(en) Canada, cupe3903 on strike

From Jeff Shantz <der_einzige@hotmail.com>
Date Wed, 6 Dec 2000 02:29:06 -0500 (EST)

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E


Here's a short report on the 6 week old strike by teaching assistants, 
graduate and research assistants and contract faculty at york university.  
The outcome of this strike will have a lot to say about organizing on 
university campuses in Canada.




At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, October 26 picket lines went up at 
each entrance to Canada's third largest university.  The strike by members 
of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903, including over 2100 
teaching assistants, contract faculty and research assistants at York 
University had been a long time in the making, originating not only in the 
intransigence of York administration but in the administrative wishes of 
other Canadian universities and in the neoliberal policies of the Ontario 
provincial government.  While still uncertain, the outcome of the York 
strike will have much to say about the future directions of postsecondary 
education in Canada especially with regards to accessiblity and class 
composition on campuses.  As the York Federation of Students (YFS) put it in 
an information bulleton: "Students and teachers all over Canada are looking 
to York in the struggle against cutbacks and for high-quality public 
education [emphasis theirs]."

Why is this strike so important and why would other university 
administrations and the Ontario government care about its outcome?

The short-term answer is that, despite its many shortcomings, the contract 
held by 3903
members is far and away the best of any teaching (TA) or graduate/research 
assistant (GA/RA) and contract faculty agreements in Canada (though not as 
strong as many in the US).  It is the model which other TA locals turn to in 
their negotiations with their home schools.  This alone makes the outcome of 
this strike pivotal.  It will have a major impact on post-secondary 
education workers across Canadian campuses.

The longer term answer is that in order for the neoliberal agenda of 
privatization and
marketization of post-secondary education to be fully implemented defenders 
of accessible
quality education, of which 3903 has been in the forefront in Canada, must 
be brought to heel
or, even better from the view of bureaucrats with an eye on for-profit 
education, eliminated

The proposals made by York administration are hallmarks of the 
corporatization drive in other public service sectors: privatization, 
reduced job security, and reductions in wages and benefits.  Indeed, the 
political character of the strike and its importance in the battle against 
neoliberal marketization of post-secondary education are reflected in the 
two major issues being fought over in the strike: tuition indexation and job 
security and promotion.

A commitment to principles of universality and accessibility drives the 
union's efforts to negotiate tuition relief for future as well as current 
TAs and GA/RAs.  Tuition indexation, a fee rebate which increases 
dollar-for-dollar with tuition, or some form of tuition waver would offer 
protection against the tuition increases which would further erode the 
accessibility of post-secondary education.  As TA locals at other 
universities in Canada begin to seeks similar protections for members, 
3903's contract takes on great significance.

Over the last ten years the real wages of some members have dropped by 12%.  
At the same time TAs and RA/GAs have suffered as management has increased 
tuition by 350%.  Since full-time registration is a requirement for holding 
a TAship or GA/RAship, tuition works as a ready-made mechanism for 
management to clawback any gains workers might win.  In this way the 
university works much like a company store where no matter how much wages 
are increased workers always find themselves owing something back to their 

This tuition requirement also represents a discriminatory employment 
arrangement which distinguishes TAs and RA/GAs from all other York 
employees.  Other university workers, whether professors, secretaries or 
maintenance staff enjoy free tution at York, for themselves and their 
families, by virtue of being university employees.  The same tuition waiver 
holds for TAs at most universities in the US.
After tuition, and even with the protection offered by indexation, TAs at 
York are left with an income of $9749.28 per year.  This is substantially 
below the Toronto poverty line of $17132 per year.  The situation for RA/GAs 
is even worse.  York is offering them a minimum of $4500 per year, not even 
enough to pay the $5184.72 tuition costs.  In addition, all graduate 
students since 1996/97 have been required to pay tuition in the summer even 
if they are finished with course work.  This requirement amounts to the 
world's most expensive library card.

By seeking to eliminate tuition indexation for incoming graduate students, 
while keeping it for those currently enrolled, York administration is 
insisting upon extending both two-tier tuition and income disparities for 
union members.  By contrast the union maintains the position that all 
students face equal tuition.

The enormous tuition increases of recent years have been permitted, indeed 
encouraged, by federal government cuts to education funding and at the 
provincial level through deregulation of tuition fees for graduate and 
professional programs.  At the same time the budgets of research funding 
bodies have suffered reductions and freezes.

Most schools, including York, have eliminated graduate post-residence fees 
which previously protected graduate students from paying full fees once 
their coursework was finished.  This has had a disastrous impact on students 
as it represents a doubling of previous fees for each year except the first 
in programs which can take over six years to complete.  And more, it has 
played nicely into the hands of university administrators as the pressures 
on students to find off-campus work to make up the tuition increases has 
lengthened completion times for many students.

Another major plank in the corporatization agenda in post-secondary 
education has been movement away from secure tenure-track positions towards 
increased reliance on contract faculty.  Reliance upon contract faculty has 
been a major part of attempts by university administrators to contain costs. 
  Efforts by university administrations to keep contract faculty working 
without even minimal job security provisions is key part of the requirement 
to "flexibilize" labour as campuses are made to fit the lean production 
models of other sectors.

Contract faculty at York currently have to apply for their jobs every four 
to eight months regardless of seniority.  Even those who have taught a 
course for 20 or so years have to re-apply to teach it, with no guarantee 
that they will get it.  To protect against this 3903 has sought an increase 
in the number of conversions of contract faculty to tenure stream.  The 
local has also insisted upon multi-year contracts for senior contract 

With respect to wages and benefits, the union has asked for minimal wage 
increases of 3.75% while the university has countered with a 2% increase 
(which is below the inflation level of 2.7%) contingent upon a cut to 
benefits.  Where 3903 has sought some parity between TAs and RA/GAs, York 
has offered a GA/RA minimum wage of less than tuition.

As it stands now GA/RAs do not make enough in wages even to cover tuition 
let alone to live on.  In addition, because this is their first contract, 
GA/RAs are not yet covered by tuition indexation protection.  The 
administration's refusal to offer livable wages suggests, in fact a 
commitment to student poverty, debt and, inevitably, decreased enrollment by 
students from low-income backgrounds.

CUPE 3903's last contract accounted for a mere 6% of overall expenditures at 
York.  The union's current demands would, over the next two years, only add 
up to 10% of the university's budget surplus of $18 million, and only .3% of 
the overall budget.  Meanwhile, York's top five bureaucrats took away $850 
000 combined in salaries between 1998-1999 (CUPE Picket Bulletin #3).  
Administration allowed itself spending increases of $4.6 million between 
1993-1997 while spending on academic areas was cut by $26.7 million over the 
same period (CUPE Picket Bulletin #3).
After two weeks on the lines the union offered proposals which reduced 
several key demands.  These reductions included: withdrawing the proposal to 
raise the value of summer funding for TAs; lowering wage demands for GAs; 
and decreasing the number of positions covered by the job security 
protections for contract faculty.  These were in addition to reductions made 
in the period just prior to the strike.  The administration maintained its 
counter-offer of nothing but major rollbacks.  Management has maintained a 
hardline stance, making no new monetary proposals since a week before the 

The university's intransigence speaks to the political character of the 
negotiations and suggests that the administration believes it has some 
powerful support for its actions.  The administration hired a Chief 
Negotiator from an infamous union-busting section of the Heenan Blakie law 
firm known for defending the Liberal government (unsuccessfully) against 
women workers' lawsuit for pay equity.  The same negotiator worked for 
administrations during faculty strikes against York and Trent Universities.

By an interesting coincidence, York President Lorna Marsden sits on the 
Boards of Directors for corporations which donated over $28000 to the same 
Conservative Ontario government which deregulated graduate fees and is 
constructing a bill to allow private universities in the province.  Her 
political connections run even deeper however since she is the former 
Vice-President of the Liberal Party of Canada, the very party which set the 
stage for tuition deregulation by cutting education transfers to the 
provinces.  The York Board of Governors consists primarily of corporate 
Directors and CEOs.  For example one Governor authored a 1996 report 
recommending the Provincial government deregulate tuition fees, a proposal 
which has been given life in a Bill currently going through readings in the 
Ontario legislature.  Another is CEO and Chair of the Canadian Imperial Bank 
of Commerce which administers student loans and profits from the increased 
student debts related to costly tuition.

Several weeks into the strike the administration has steadfastly refused to 
put forward any serious offers.  In week five management walked away from 
the table altogether and has, as of December 5th, refused to return until 
the union lowers its demands substantially.  The union remains firm in 
fighting the university's concessions agenda and members have stated 
strongly that there can be no further reductions.

Recognizing the implications of 3903's strike for the further extension of 
the neoliberal agenda, both on campus and off, a number of unions and 
community groups, including the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, have 
worked to support the strike, reinforcing picket lines and taking part in 
solidarity actions.  The morale of 3903 members remains high and their 
commitment to fight against the corporate onslaught is unshaken.


CUPE 3903: http://strike.cupe3903.tao.ca

CUPE National Postsecondary Education Sector: 

CUPE National [Anti-]Privatization: 

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: http://www.tao.ca/~ocap

Student Activist Network: http://san.tao.ca

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