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Why we strike: CUPE 3903 and the fight for dignity, equity, and job security in the neoliberal university

Rawan Abdelbaki

March 28, 2018

Following a wave of labour revolts in recent weeks by teachers and university workers in the Western world – from West Virginia to Louisiana, and Chicago to the United Kingdom and Ottawa, the members of CUPE 3903 – representing teaching assistants (Unit 1), contract faculty (Unit 2), and graduate assistants (Unit 3) – voted to take strike action after rejecting the employer’s final offer on Friday, March 2, 2018.

The rank-and-file’s decision came after six months of negotiations with York University’s recalcitrant administration. Despite the union's willingness to bargain over the weekend to prevent the commencement of a strike on Monday, March 5, York refused to return to the bargaining table. Against mounting pressure, York made a return to the table during the third week of the strike, after which they once again walked away without reaching a settlement.

In the weeks leading up to, and for the duration of the strike, York has “bargained in the media” rather than at the table, as CUPE 3903 Unit 2 member, Marc Weinstein, aptly stated. York continues to inundate the undergraduate student body and the general public with messages that specifically seek to pit strikers and students against each other. For example, they published open letters to interfere with the strike mandate vote in the student newspaper, The Excalibur. They also followed up with radio advertisements and a website about the university's labour relations.

On March 13, York disseminated a statement entitled “Memorandum on a Path Forward” to the York University community in which it falsely accused the union of failing to bargain in good faith. Rife as it is with numerical inaccuracies and "alternative facts," the document communicates that the union’s demands are costly and unrealistic, despite the fact that York reported a $36.4 million surplus in 2017. In fact, a recent piece by two former CUPE 3903 members reveals that the net value of CUPE 3903 contracts represented a mere 10 per cent of the university’s total labour costs in 2017. York erroneously states that “there are no remaining issues” for teaching assistants, that the union’s demand for job security for contract faculty is unreasonable, while making no mention at all of Unit 3. In short, York finds CUPE 3903's rejection of a "sector-leading" compensation package astounding.

So, why did the members of CUPE 3903 reject a supposedly “sector-leading” package, and subject themselves to financial strain, hours of arduous picketing in the cold, and time spent away from their classrooms? Succinctly put, the demands of the workers revolve around three core issues: job security for contract faculty, the protection of funding and unionized jobs for graduate students, and equity and accessibility in the workplace.

Union-Busting, Unpredictable Funding, and Precarious Work

Before pursuing my doctoral studies, I had also completed my Master of Arts at York. Upon admission, I was given the option of either receiving a lump sum of tax-free funding to complete my research, or working as a graduate assistant wherein I earned a taxable income. I chose the latter, and for the duration of my Master’s, I was a Unit 3 member. This meant that, as a unionized employee, I had – among several other benefits, the right to an expansive health package, access to additional union funds to cover research-related travel and conference costs, and I gained invaluable work experience.

Since 2016, Unit 3 has been almost entirely decimated when the university eliminated 800 unionized jobs. York artificially inflated the costs of this labour to justify gutting it, and made these workers unaffordable for professors and research centers who had previously hired them to perform research and/or administrative duties. This does not mean that graduate assistants now make higher wages, but that a shift from 15 per cent to an 80 per cent subcharge to hire a graduate assistant was unilaterally imposed by York to discourage professors from hiring unionized workers.

In an increasingly “competitive” (read: bleakly precarious) labour market, the ability to amass any work experience while enhancing one’s credentials has become especially crucial – a position that individuals across the political spectrum can rally around. It also seems particularly hypocritical for an institution that putatively understands the importance of experiential learning to insist that that the 90 per cent of graduate assistant jobs that it slashed are insignificant for professional development. The second rationale mobilized to explain what is, in no uncertain terms, a union-busting campaign is the university's alleged commitment to the treatment of its graduate students as "students first"– students whose newfound “liberation from work” would allow them to excel at their studies. This brings me to the heart of one of the main "bread and butter" concerns of the CUPE 3903: the York Fellowship Fund.

While earning "free money" might sound appealing to some, the delinking of funds from the Collective Agreement means that the employer can easily alter the size of the fund or entirely redact it at its whims. That was precisely what happened to a student who was granted an offer into a Master's program last year under this fellowship model. Unable to continue her studies due to severe illness, and without access to additional health benefits that could afford her the resources to sustain her health, she ultimately had to quit the program. Once withdrawn, the student was asked by York to repay the portion of the fellowship fund that she had received. Had this student been a unionized Unit 3 worker, she would have been able to take a paid sick or disability leave, access extended health benefits well beyond the insufficient OHIP provisions, and call upon an array of union advocacy and supports. Thus, in contradistinction to York’s propaganda, it is not the "burden of work" that impairs students’ success and progress, but the structural unaccountability of the employer that make it progressively impossible for students to live with a modicum of dignity and comfort.

Fighting against precarity also means fighting for decent work. Despite popular belief, TAs are not a spoiled and privileged elite of workers; they make approximately $15,000 a year once tuition amounts are deducted, a salary that is well-below the poverty line. One need not look any further than York University’s President Rhonda Lenton’s doctoral dissertation to understand the importance of stable and reliable graduate funding. In the "acknowledgements" section, Lenton explicitly states that, had it not been for her ability to combine the money she had received from an external scholarship and the income she earned as a teaching assistant, she would not have been able to support herself and cover the costs of her study.

CUPE 3903’s evidence-based proposals (which take into account general economic trends and the average cost of living and housing in Toronto) culminated in the demand that York increase annual wages for all units by 3.5 per cent, dropped from 4 per cent as a compromise to reach a settlement, and only a modest 1.4 per cent above Toronto’s inflation rate of 2.1 per cent. York’s counter-proposal on wage increases is 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 per cent in the years 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively. However, any wage increase below the inflation rate is, in effect, an annual pay cut – York’s offer will simply translate into wage stagnation, with no actual or substantial increase to real wages earned. In addition, graduate students neither have control over how the fellowship portion of these monies is allocated, nor on fluctuations to these amounts. Because of this funding model, we cannot, as Lenton had done during her doctoral studies, combine our wages and scholarships to support ourselves and fund our research. When we work hard to accrue increasingly competitive and scarce external awards, York takes back $5400 from the award itself: this amount used to be a portion of our wages under what is called the “Minimum Guarantee” in our Collective Agreement, but has been rebranded without any consultation with the union as the York Doctoral Fellowship (which the university considers a grant). York is thus using student "grants" to retain what was once paid to us as a wage.

The replacement of the "Minimum Guarantee" has also allowed York to strip graduate students in Unit 1 of their summer funding. Although students are required to pay tuition in the summer in order to maintain year-round enrolment, they only get paid 8-months of the year. These changes have far-reaching implications. For those of us who have to demonstrate the deposit of a monthly income into our bank accounts – ranging from the paperwork required to rent a home, to most credit-related applications or purchases, and to permanent residency and citizenship applications (the latter being especially, but not exclusively, the case for international students), these changes can quite literally mean the difference of having a roof over one’s head or becoming homeless, having legal status or risking deportation.

Currently, York refuses to include the fellowship model into our Collective Agreement – a "red line" for the union membership. The effects of this omission will be particularly grave for prospective students whose “liberation” from work will also remove them from the Priority Pool in job hiring – something that CUPE 3903 fought for and won years ago, and which requires York to offer PhD students an additional 5 years of funding through teaching assistantships after their first year of TA work. Essentially, then, York’s refusal to include the fellowship model into our Collective Agreement makes York’s offer concessionary since it erodes the protections offered by the Priority Pool.

But perhaps the most obviously concessionary offer is the one currently proposed for Unit 2 (contract faculty), who are being asked to settle for a meager two conversions per year into full-time tenure-track positions, rather than the eight conversions that were won during the 2015 strike. Contract faculty are an exploited underclass of academic workers whose numbers have ballooned drastically compared to the number of tenured professorship hires. In the past two decades, the number of tenured professors has increased by 20 per cent, while the number of contract faculty has increased by 121 per cent. As course directors, contract faculty perform that same duties as full-time tenured professors at a fraction of the cost, and enjoy minimal job security protections: they have to reapply for the same positions every term, they are compensated poorly, and they often have to teach at multiple universities and/or colleges or take up alternative “side-hustles” to make ends meet.

What York has proposed in lieu of eight conversions is a flimsy offer of two conversions, accompanied by six “special renewable contracts” (SRCs). Previously, this program targeted long-serving, high-seniority members, but York’s modified version would be open to everyone in the conversion pool. What York fails to mention in their information on bargaining is that this version of SRCs is much more conditional, with more limited opportunities for renewal. More importantly, the full-time SRC appointees’ teaching loads and salaries would have to be established in the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) Collective Agreement. This proposal is nothing but an empty promise since it is contingent upon another union’s agreement, which cannot be granted until such an agreement is negotiated between YUFA and York. Such a move is something that even an arbitrator would not allow.

Equity and Accessibility

The last, but certainly not least, outstanding sets of issues that remain on the table pertain to equity and accessibility in the workplace. Here, there has been some movement on the part of the employer, such as including LGBTQ as an employment equity group, and opening the existing long-term disability leave to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (though York refuses to increase the amounts of wages paid through this leave).

York has stubbornly rejected important equity proposals by CUPE 3903, such as their refusal to pay for equity, anti-oppression, and sexual violence training, among other measures to track York’s adherence to equity standards in both hiring and graduate school admissions processes. York continues to reject calls to create accessible breastfeeding and lactation facilities throughout campus (your average shopping mall has one!), the provision of childcare facilities at the Glendon and Markham campuses, and the allocation of $50,000 (dropped from $100,000) towards a Sexual Violence Survivor Fund to offset counselling, legal costs, and lost wages. York’s refusal to move on these equity issues is especially remarkable for a number of reasons. After settling a Human Rights Tribunal case with a graduate student whose experience of sexual assault revealed the deep inadequacy of existing policies, services and sexual assault training, York made a superficial commitment to improve these services. Instead, York has proposed a Sexual Violence Response Office, which it would unilaterally control, and is so far built in a way for the university to avoid litigation in the future. In a province whose Premier has vowed to take serious action against sexual violence and harassment, and in a university whose president is a self-proclaimed feminist who touts sexual harassment and family conflict as areas of academic expertise, it is tragically ironic to witness the urgency of these demands go unheard and unmet.

Assessing the Future of Labour at York

As things stand today, York faces two Unfair Labour Practices suits from CUPE 3903 – the first filed in 2017 (currently at abeyance) in response to York’s evisceration of Unit 3, and second filed on March 21, 2018 for dishonest communication.

The handling of the CUPE 3903 bargaining by this administration sets a dangerous precedent for upcoming negotiations with YUFA and YUSA (the York University Staff Association) as their Agreements reach their expiry this year. York’s decision to override YUFA in its SRC proposal to CUPE 3903 has raised several concerns among YUFA members. Professors who suspended their classes were harassed by the administration to provide individual rationales for their decision, even when their departments have collectively decided to suspend classes. It might also be fair to predict that YUSA members will have more than a few bones to pick, as the eradication of Graduate Assistant jobs has overwhelmed staff with additional work.

Although 60 per cent of the university's teaching staff are currently on strike, the Vice-President Academic and Provost, Lisa Philipps, unilaterally declared that the university would remain open and that some classes would continue as through it was "business as usual." This decision generated mass confusion and chaos. As York experiences a “crisis of governance”, many of its community members have had to carefully assess the future of democratic governance and workplace democracy in this university. York’s decision to not suspend classes was made by circumventing the Senate – a move that stands in violation of the York University Act, which stipulates that the Senate has power over academic policy decisions, including the decision to cancel and reschedule classes. The shift of decision-making powers to an unaccountable, undemocratic, and non-representative management structure resembles what York senator and striking teaching assistant, Devin Clancy, has called a “corporate coup” of the university.

Another response to these events comes from a contingent of inspiring undergraduate students in solidarity with 3903, who have been occupying the Senate Chambers since March 22 to reassert their claims to this symbolic university space. They have demanded that the Senate uphold the principles of academic integrity and cancel all classes until a fair deal is made with CUPE 3903, that they receive full tuition refunds for the winter term, and answers about President Lenton’s lavish personal spending from their tuition monies. York’s intimidation of students in response to this action has raised the concerns of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). Overall, the past few weeks have revealed tremendous levels of solidarity with the CUPE 3903 strike from within and beyond the York University community, strengthening the resolve of the picketers.

So, we strike to continue to raise the bar in a sector whose standards and labour practices have succumbed to some of the most pernicious attacks of neoliberal austerity politics. We strike against the commodification of higher education. We strike for quality undergraduate education. We strike because it is our historical militancy, not the benevolence of our employer, that gave us a sector-leading agreement. We strike because the very existence of our union is at stake as York attempts to gut our union membership. We strike for our most vulnerable members. We strike because the way that’s been tried has led us astray. We strike because we have to give life to this institution’s founding traditions of social justice and equity. We strike for fairness.

This is why we strike. And this is why we have to win.


Rawan Abdelbaki is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Graduate Program in Sociology at York University, and a member of CUPE 3903. 

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