Three months of strike by lecturers and teaching assistants at York University has created a deep crisis at the institution. Most classes during the winter term were not in session, and now the summer term has been shortened and course offerings heavily cut down. This is no surprise as most of the teaching at the university is done by striking members of CUPE 3903.
This strike is a defensive struggle of the workers against major concessions and the elimination of unionized positions. The fight has been long and bitter. The union has organized several “hard pickets” recently, and there was a vehicle assault when a motorist drove into the picket and hit one of the picketers. Throughout the whole labour dispute, the top administration has refused to negotiate and bargain with the union.
The employer has only come to the bargaining table once in the past three months, despite numerous requests from the union. This is quite astonishing given that the strike at York University is the second longest in the history of labour disputes in the education sector. More than any other fact, this indicates the real situation the strike is facing.
We have to look beneath the immediate demands on the bargaining table for more deeply-rooted causes if we are to understand why this struggle has become so long, bitter and has caused such a crisis at the university.
York University’s Margaret Thatcher
CUPE 3903 is a union local that has been at the forefront of labour struggle in the post-secondary education sector. The union is known for its radicalism; as a recent right-wing, red-baiting article in the National Post put it, “with four strikes in 18 years, CUPE 3903 is one of the most militant, difficult and ambitious unions in Ontario, and York has to deal with it”. There are significant left-wing traditions among the faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at York, which has a reputation as one of the most radical universities in English North America.
The top administration and the Board of Governors (BOG) represents the capitalist class, and most of these people have direct or indirect links to major corporations, the main capitalist political parties or top law firms. Given their history of struggle, CUPE 3903 workers have one of the best contracts in the sector, and the university has a very combative and confident workforce. Therefore the “normal” functioning of the university from the standpoint of the capitalists has been undermined.
The intention of the BOG and the top administration is to decisively change the balance of power on the campus in favour of the bosses. They want to restore their control of the campus. This means bringing the workers and students to heel, starting with CUPE 3903.
This explains why the administration has not been bargaining with the union. They want to exhaust the workers and are effectively locking them out until they submit to the concessions being pushed on them. This was demonstrated by the state-administered forced ratification vote (which the employer can initiate only once during a labour dispute). The deal put to the workers, six weeks into the strike, was essentially the same that was on the table prior to the strike.
The strikers impressively rejected that deal with a vote of 86% and a high turn-out. The administration has also staged provocations against the workers by hiring union-busting private security firms, filming picketers at the lines, hiring notoriously anti-union law firms and trying to red-bait the union in the courts and the media.
The top administration and the BOG showed its intentions when it overturned the powers of the Senate. The Senate, relative to the BOG, has much more faculty, staff and student representation. Its formation was itself the result of struggle, won in the 1997 faculty strike at the university led by the York University Faculty Association (YUFA). While the formation of the Senate is far from achieving genuine democratic control of the campus, it was an important victory. In past strikes, the Senate has voted to shut-down all classes. This time, the top administration intervened to block the Senate from doing so, ignoring the vote made at the Senate, and ensured that classes remained open. This represents a consolidation of power at the top and a roll-back of previously won gains.
The aim of this maneuver was to create chaos on campus. In a situation with most classes and tutorials not running, and with pickets at all the entrances to the campus, the fact that classes instructed by faculty were proceeding created significant confusion. It also acted to encourage scabbing by union members.
In addition to undermining the bargaining power of striking staff and enabling scabbing, keeping classes open served another purpose. It was aimed at promoting a backlash on the part of undergraduate students against the striking lecturers and graduate students. It creates the conditions for violence at the picket lines. The strategy of divide and conquer has been actively pursued by the administration, as we will see further.
By creating a situation of crisis, the administration was gunning for anti-strike legislation and binding arbitration. Their strategy was to wait for the government to step-in and break the strike. The Ontario Liberal government tabled back-to-work legislation on May 7th. This was delayed by the Ontario NDP parliamentary caucus, and the parliament closed down prior to passing the bill due to the elections.
Since then, the top administration has constantly pushed for binding arbitration, which would end the strike. They want to move the struggle off the picket lines, and into the boardrooms with lawyers, arbitrators and bureaucrats. In order to push strikers to accept binding arbitration, the administration has threatened to refuse back-pay.
The new president of York University, Rhonda Lenton, came in specifically with a program of breaking the trade unions. This will not remain limited to the concessions currently being demanded from CUPE 3903.
Prior to the strike, the administration had already slashed 700 unionized positions. If the union accepts the present concessions being demanded of it, it will demoralize and weaken the union. It is guaranteed that further attacks would follow in the coming months and years.
This is also evident from the attitude of Lenton and the top administration towards YUFA, which is the union representing full-time faculty. Their collective agreement expired over a month ago. The senior administration has already indicated that it will be aggressive in bargaining with YUFA. That they ignored the Senate decision to cancel classes, and failed to consult with the faculty association in the appointment of President Rhonda Lenton, indicates that it is not only CUPE 3903 that is in the crosshairs.
Rhonda Lenton is clearly prepared to break the unions at significant cost to the university’s general reputation. Enrollment will certainly be harmed by such a lengthy strike, and the massive chaos and confusion caused by her attempts to sow discord and division will have negative consequences going forward if she is successful. The recent motor vehicle assault is symptomatic of this.
A certain analogy can be drawn to the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was prepared to destroy the coal sector and undermine British industry, for the purpose of smashing the workers organizations, specifically the National Union of Miners (NUM), which was a powerful union known for its militant, radical traditions. On a much smaller scale, Lenton is pursuing a similar policy. She is trying to smash the unions, regardless of the consequences for the institution.
The bosses are trying to turn the tide at York University. They are on the offensive against faculty, staff and students. York is well-known as a “radical” campus, with strong unions and student movement. The program of the capitalists is to transform it into its opposite, to break the unions and dominate the campus from the top. This will have ramifications beyond York university. If the bosses win, it can send the message to other students and workers that struggle leads to defeat. On the other hand, if a victory is scored, it will embolden others to fight.
Advancing the Struggle
The rank-and-file of CUPE 3903 has fought very stubbornly despite the length of the strike, the refusal to bargain by the senior administration and both the actual and threatened state intervention against the union. However, there has been a process of exhaustion in the union as the strike remains prolonged, and many are struggling with the loss of their livelihoods. This is particularly true of members of Unit 2 of the union, which is made up contract lecturers, who are more likely to depend on their employment with York University for their survival. This threatens to create a division between the different bargaining units in the union, which would be a major blow to the struggle.
The sense of demoralization that has affected a certain layer of the union will be compounded by a union leadership that does not show the way forward. It is important that the union leadership reflect the fighting spirit, stubbornness and militancy of the rank-and-file.
Unfortunately, the union leadership has made a number of concessions from the position put forward by the membership at the outset of the strike. This is despite the fact that the other side, the bosses, have effectively boycotted the bargaining table and negotiations.
Many rank-and-file members have expressed their anger at the union leadership “negotiating with itself” by watering down their demands. They correctly feel that there is no sense in doing so, especially when the other side is making no concessions and not even coming to the table.
The approach of the union’s bargaining team was exemplified by their “Letter to the York administration” published on May 16th, which committed to flexibility, offered to significantly reduce the number of conversion appointments the union would accept, and to “be creative” with the issue of the 700 graduate assistant jobs that were slashed (these were both red-line issues).
While the union leadership is feeling the pressure to appear “reasonable”, the reality is that watering down demands and “negotiating with yourself” only demoralizes the rank-and-file, while displaying weakness to the bosses and the state, inviting further aggression. This was demonstrated on the one occasion when the administration actually came to the bargaining table. The union leadership gave several concessions on non-central issues as an “act of good faith” in the negotiations. Immediately, York went on the offensive, demanding concessions on the core issue of conversions.
The pressure to appear “reasonable” which weighs down from the pro-business politicians, government inquiries and commissions, from the mainstream press and from the right-wing trade union bureaucracy - has meant that the idea of binding arbitration is being accepted by some in the union leadership. The drying up of union coffers is adding to this pressure.
This sentiment in favour of binding arbitration has spread to a certain layer in the ranks of the union which have a more conservative outlook, and have been affected by the pressure of “respectable” bourgeois public opinion, and also by the vacillations of the union leadership on this question. However, it must be noted that many, especially older workers, are facing real economic difficulties as the strike drags on that must be understood.
Sadly the executive committee and bargaining team have been affected by this pressure, and have decided to rescind the firm anti-arbitration position the union has held. The union leadership successfully pushed a proposal that would give it the strategic option of pursuing binding arbitration.
Moving towards binding arbitration would be a major mistake for the strikers. The proof is that this is the very policy the bosses have been pursuing from the beginning! The bosses want to take the struggle off the picket lines and the streets, away from bargaining with representatives of the workers, and move it into the arena of lawyers, arbitrators and bureaucrats.
Arbitrators are far from neutral, and their determinations are shaped by the labour laws established in a capitalist society. Especially since 2008, arbitrators have been imposing concessionary contracts. Given that the contract at York is perhaps the best in the sector, the pressure would be downwards in any comparative appraisal to other contracts in the sector. Moreover, many arbitrators in the past decade have been directed to take into account government debt and “fiscal responsibility”, which can be used to justify forcing concessions on workers as 50% of the universities’ revenues come from public funding.
Kathleen Wynne’s maneuver instituting an “industrial inquiry”, which was met with optimism by some in the union leadership, was an important lesson. Throughout the strike, members of the union leadership often repeated the quote by Kathleen Wynne that “the best deals are won at the table”. This hides the clear agenda the Liberals have in continuing the corporatization of campus, cutting funding to education and the pushing proliferation of precarious work in the sector. The willingness of the Liberals totrample on the right to collectively bargain was clearly evident last December when they legislated the Ontario college teachers back to work. It is therefore no surprise that the inquiry findings and conclusions were primarily aimed against the union, attacking its supposedly extreme demands, and explained that there could be no solution through collective bargaining, which set the stage for back-to-work legislation. The lessons must be learned from those misguided illusions.
The strikers can only rely on their own strength, and that of the broader working class and student movement. To prevent demoralization and division in the union, the union leadership must show a way forward to win the strike. Instead of showing weakness, watering down demands, and looking to end the strike through binding arbitration, the focus must be on strengthening and broadening the struggle.
Spread the Struggle
There has been a growing ferment at the university among broader layers of students and staff. It is no understatement that there is a deep crisis at York. This has discredited many institutions and bureaucracies at the campus. While many want the strike to end, the primary target of anger is the top administration and the Board of Governors, which directly represent the interests of the capitalists.
This has led to series of resolutions of “no confidence” in the Board of Governors and the senior administration by various student and faculty organizations. The York Federation of Students (YFS) representing over 50,000 undergraduate students, and the York University Graduate Students Association (YUGSA), representing the 6,000 graduate students, both passed such resolutions.
Similar resolutions were passed by faculty councils at Glendon College, the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. This means that associations representing more than half of the faculty at York University have passed such resolutions.
YUFA, which represents 1,500 full-time faculty, librarians, archivists and other staff, will be bargaining with the university, as their contract has expired. YUFA has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the administration, as the maneuvers of the Board of Governors and top administration against the Senate are a direct attack on the gains of the 1997 YUFA strike.
This shows the enormous potential to spread the strike, which currently involves approximately 3,000 graduate students and contract lecturers. The struggle should be broadened, as should the demands of the struggle.
Faculty, students and other campus workers need to unite to provide a solution to the present crisis, and halt the vicious offensive of Lenton and the bosses, who aim to score a decisive victory by smashing the unions. One demand to unite all sections of the campus is to abolish the Board of Governors and eliminate the top administration (with their huge salaries). Instead the campus should be directly controlled and managed democratically by the faculty, staff and students, with all representatives on leading bodies being subject to the principle of recall.
Another central demand is to raise the banner of free education and good jobs for all. This demand can unite the vast majority on the campus. The student unions, particularly the YFS and YUGSA, with their respective memberships of 50,000 and 6,000, should move to launch a student strike movement immediately. The first step is calling a mass rally, and emergency membership meetings for each student union, so that the rank-and-file can decide on the program and plan for the struggle.
The struggle should also be spread to other campus workers, such as cleaning, food service, maintenance, call-centre and technical support workers. As we saw with the victorious strike of food workers last year, these workers are some of the most oppressed and they have gained significant confidence in the past period through their struggles.
Bring the Undergraduates Into the Struggle!
A major breakthrough for the movement would be to spread it to the more than 50,000 undergraduates at York University. There has been constant ferment among these students. Most come from working class, and often racial minority, backgrounds. They have been struggling economically and there is a seething anger at the top administration.
We have already seen two prominent petitions which were pro-union, hostile to the top administration, and demanding full tuition refunds which gained many thousands of signatures. One of them was launched by the YFS, which is the student union representing the undergraduates, and which has made public statements in support of CUPE 3903.
There have been a multiple undergraduate rallies held on the campus, in which the Socialist Fightback Students have played a prominent role. Undergraduate students have organized many picket lines visits, written pro-union articles and even held a sit-in supporting the strike (which has sadly declined into isolation). An Open Letter and a petition has been launched by rank-and-file undergraduate student activists with Socialist Fightback Students to demand mobilization from the YFS for free education, good jobs, support for CUPE 3903 and for student strikes.
Teachers in CUPE 3903 must spread the struggle to their students. This has unfortunately been one the many flaws of the union leadership. They have not called for joint rallies of lecturers, graduate students and undergraduates, around the many common demands that they share. They have not publically appealed to the undergraduate student union to mobilize their members into the struggle and join the strike movement.
The major effort by the CUPE 3903 leadership on this front has been to finance and support the student sit-in or “reclamation”, which has no echo among the undergraduate students, and is made up of a handful of elitist activists who have denied voting rights to anybody except their tiny clique.
A first natural step to spreading the struggle to undergraduates is to create a bridge to the most class-conscious, organized and active students. At York University, the absolute majority of these undergraduates are organized with the Socialist Fightback Students. Instead of reaching out, the union leadership organized a political witch-hunt and anti-democratic ban against Fightback, which was even applied to members of the union who were attending their picket lines. This was a damaging mistake.
Fortunately, the union’s strategy can be corrected. With the beginning of the summer school term, CUPE 3903 should call for a joint rally with the undergraduates around common demands of good jobs for all, free education, and abolishing the Board of Governors and booting out the top administration. CUPE 3903 should make an open appeal for the YFS to join the struggle and initiate strike action.
Finally, CUPE 3903 should create a bridge with the class-conscious and active undergraduates at the rank-and-file, and not just the YFS student union leadership and bureaucracy. This layer at the top of the student union is reformist and has been quite passive during the present strike. It is not enough to focus from the top-down, but also appeal for an undergraduate movement from the bottom-up
CUPE 3903 should connect with and appeal to rank-and-file and the grassroots of the student union. An important step would be lifting the anti-democratic ban against the Socialist Fightback Students. Most importantly, it means organizing joint activity such as rallies and town-halls with the militant and left-wing rank-and-file.
Ontario Elections & the Labour Movement
The struggle must also be spread off campus to the broader labour movement. The ramifications of this strike are far greater than the contract demands of York University workers. A victory in this strike would generate enthusiasm across the labour movement, especially in the education sector.
The threat of back-to-work legislation looms over the strike, especially since the Liberals tabled such legislation, but failed to pass it due to parliament closing. This threat followed from the college teachers strike which was broken through back-to-work legislation in the fall. It is therefore evident that weakness invites aggression, and that the labour movement’s failure to defeat and defy anti-strike legislation leads to further attacks.
The Ontario election presents a significant opportunity for spreading the struggle. Given there is no standing government, there is no possibility of back-to-work legislation until a new government is formed. CUPE 3903 should use this opportunity to spark a broader fight back by the labour movement.
The mainstream corporate press has given significant coverage to this strike, including red-baiting witch-hunts against the union. The two parties of the capitalist class, the Liberals and Conservatives, have gone on the offensive to make the York University strike an election issue. The rise of the Ontario NDP in the polls has terrified the bosses.
A campaign has been launched to attack the Ontario NDP for having opposed back-to-work legislation against CUPE 3903. Kathleen Wynne has gone on the offensive saying that an NDP government would mean “indefinite strikes”. In contrast, the Liberals and Conservatives would introduce anti-democratic legislation to smash the strike at York University. The question of the intervention of the capitalist state in breaking up strikes, through the courts and cops, has been made into an election issue. To her credit, Andrea Horwath has responded by saying the long strike at York University was caused by lack of funding to education.
This offensive by the bosses should be met with a province-wide movement organized by the trade unions against anti-strike laws, such as back-to-work and essential service legislation. For example, the Toronto transit workers are presently in negotiations but their right to legally strike was previously taken away by the Ontario Liberals.
This movement should challenge the austerity policies that the Ontario Liberals have carried out over the last 15 years and those which Conservatives are promising to undertake if they win the election. The labour movement should raise the demands for a massive increase to funding for education, to provide good jobs and free education, as well as increasing funding to other services like transit, housing and health. This would make trade union rights, good jobs, free education and funding social programs more prominent issues in the election.
The labour movement should openly oppose both the bourgeois parties, and therefore oppose so-called “strategic voting”. Instead the movement should call for critical support for the Ontario NDP which has been surging in the polls. Such a movement would prepare the ground for the struggle post-election. In the event that the Conservatives or Liberals win, the movement should be prepared to fight against austerity policies and the specific anti-strike legislation the new government would bring down against CUPE 3903. In the event of an NDP victory, labour would still have to mobilize to resist the inevitable corporate backlash, and stop the party bureaucracy capitulating like Rae and Notley.
CUPE 3903 is well-positioned to initiate such a movement. The union local should call for rallies at Queen’s Park leading up to, and after, the June 7th election. Demands should be made on the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and CUPE Ontario to help build such a movement and advance these demands. Union locals should be reached out to, as well as appeals made to the rank-and-file of the labour movement.
The use of back-to-work legislation has effectively removed the right to strike in many parts of Canada. Ironically, it has had the effect of prolonging strikes as managers merely sit back and refuse to bargain, waiting to be bailed out by government. Unions have repeatedly won in the courts against such legislation, that violated the charter right to free association. But such court victories take years, cost millions in lawyers fees, by which time the damage is done. The bosses will keep using this dictatorial tool until unions start defying legislation and upholding the democratic right to strike. Given its role in the movement CUPE 3903 is a prime candidate a lead a defiance and call for the rest of the movement to commit to joining them. Plans must be made now to put defiance into action, as back-to-work legislation is sure to be the first act of a new Ford or Wynne government.
As the strike at York University drags into its third month, the York administration is bent on breaking the union. The strike has entered a critical phase with sections of the union leadership vacillating, moving towards compromise and even binding arbitration. This only causes demoralization, splits and confusion. The strike has also become a major election issue, with the Liberals and Conservatives pushing to break the strike and using the issue to attack the Ontario NDP. A retreat at this stage would be very harmful.
The way forward is to expand the struggle. The strike movement should be spread to faculty and undergraduates. All attempts to end the struggle on the picket lines and move it to arbitration, whether through strike-breaking legislation or through capitulation of the union leadership, must be combatted. The election presents a golden opportunity to spread the struggle, deliver a blow against the bosses’ parties, and prepare the ground for further advance for the working class movement.
Strike to win! Militancy is way forward!
Spread the struggle across campus!
Abolish the Board of Governors and kick out the senior administration!
Organize a movement to defeat the bosses’ parties and prepare to defy back-to-work legislation!
For solidarity strikes and rallies! An injury to one is an injury to all!