The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3903, which represents teaching assistants, contract faculty, graduate assistants, and research assistants at York University, is once again being cornered into a strike position by the pro-business administration at the university. For years, the administration has been taking York University in a direction which has seen underpaid and overworked contract faculty and teaching assistants handling increased course loads and larger class sizes. These individuals now handle more than 50 percent of courses taught at the university. Aside from attacking the working and living standards of academic workers, this also depreciates the education of all students at York. Fightback fully supports the struggle of CUPE 3903 workers to fight for better working conditions, as well as the struggle for improved education for all.
Contract faculty typically face unstable sources of income which depend on the number of courses they teach per semester, and this number can be as low as zero. TAs, GAs, and RAs receive funding levels that leave most living well below the poverty line. At the same time, they have to struggle to pay ever increasing tuition fees as part of their employment. These students and workers are demanding pay increases to keep up with inflation, as well as better job security and consistency of funding.
Strong union leadership needed to confront university administration
During the last strike at York in 2008-9, we witnessed the lengths to which the York administration went to in order to break CUPE 3903. We can be sure that they will take an equally hard line this time around. Therefore, it is imperative that the leadership of CUPE 3903 come out with a strong mobilization campaign that not only unites their membership, but also unites with potential allies amongst undergraduates and other workers at York. This will help ensure that maximum pressure is put on the administration so that academic workers get a fair deal.
Members of CUPE 3903 passed a strike vote on March 16, which allows them to go on strike as early as April 12. Members are currently asking for a 2% yearly wage increase over a period of three years, which is similar to what the University of Toronto’s contract faculty and TAs received in an agreement that was recently concluded. Although we think these demands are still too low and should be higher to truly meet the needs of academic workers (the rate of inflation in Ontario alone was 2.9% in February), the administration has even rejected this proposal and counterposed an increase of only 1.2%!
More important, however, are demands affecting the quality of the classroom experience for both students and teachers. It is worth mentioning that in the past, CUPE 3903 has fought for, and won, limits on classroom sizes, something that other universities such as the University of Toronto don’t currently possess. However, even these gains are far from sufficient as many York undergrads would likely attest from their own experience in overcrowded classrooms and tutorials. As a result, the union has proposed allowing students to identify classes that are too large, and to create a fund that would allow these classes to be split up into smaller sections. This is a progressive step that would both allow for more interactive learning, enriching the education of students, as well as create more work for TAs and contract faculty.
Of course, this contradicts the direction in which the administration would like to see the university develop. Far from a student-centred model for higher education, the tendency for some time now has been to increasingly corporatize the campus experience, and put more funding into areas that increase the university’s “prestige”. Aside from getting more corporate dollars, this also allows York to justify higher tuition fees and more exclusive entrance requirements — even though the actual educational experience for students continues to suffer.
Unsurprisingly, the administration is taking a hard line in the present round of bargaining, much as it did during the last strike that occurred in 2009. Many will remember that this strike disrupted a good portion of the academic year for students. It was largely a result of the belligerent stance taken by the administration that the strike dragged on for so long, as it figured it could starve the union until it conceded, or it would get the provincial government to step in with back-to-work legislation (which was the eventual result). Undergraduate students and members of CUPE 3903 suffered greatly as a result of the strike, while members of York’s board of directors, such as university president Mamdouh Shoukri, continued to earn six-figure salaries.
With the above in mind, we recommend the union leadership to not flinch from taking a militant stand against the university administration. For example, it appears that currently the union is mirroring the settlement of the CUPE 3902 workers at the University of Toronto. This means that this is the maximum that York University workers are likely to achieve. Many at U of T were disappointed with these results. In order to mobilize the membership and the wider community, the union leadership needs to be able to put forward something that can really inspire people. We hope these suggestions are not taken as an attack, on the union or its leadership, but as comradely recommendations that can help York academic workers get the best possible deal from the administration.
While the administration puts on a tough face and makes it appear that it will not budge, the reality of the situation is that enrolment at York has suffered since the 2009 strike and another strike is the last thing the board of directors wants at this point. Rather than asking nicely for this or that minor concession, union leaders should call the university’s bluff and fight fire with fire. Ultimately, it is only through the use of militant demands, backed up by vigorous campaigning amongst the on and off-campus undergraduate student population, that victory will be assured in this and in future struggles.
Connecting to the wider struggle against capitalist austerity and the fight for free education
It is clear that in the present climate of capitalist crisis, massive budget deficits, and austerity, future attacks on students and workers are to be expected with increased regularity. It is naïve to think that meek demands at the bargaining table will be enough to stem the tide of growing class sizes, stagnant wages, and increasing tuition fees at universities and colleges. The only effective response to this offensive is to meet it with an equally powerful counter-offensive. A mass student movement, united with the workers’ movement, could put the necessary pressure on the bosses and their allies in government. We are seeing a hint of this in the ongoing students’ strike in Quebec, which included a 300,000-strong march in Montreal. This is what is needed here in Ontario. While this is not an easy task, it can certainly be done, as we see just over the border.
The demand for “free education” provides us with an important banner around which to rally support for the building of such a mass student movement. Historically, it has only been through the adoption of such radical social demands that any progress has been achieved at all. Facing a determined opposition, the union needs to win over other students who can help academic workers meet their demands. The union should also explain to other students that a victory for academic workers in this present round of negotiations could deliver precisely the spark that is needed, provided that a wider campaign is organized in process that engages with wider sections of the student population. In doing this, they should also not be afraid to be bold in both manner and content. The demand for ‘free education’ is one that can truly inspire.
Victory to the academic workers in CUPE 3903!
For building a mass militant student movement in Ontario to fight for free education!