On 6th November, 2008 CUPE local 3903, representing 3,400 graduate assistants, research assistants and contract faculty went on strike. The main issues included job security for contract faculty, better graduate funding, improved health benefits and child care. Since contract negotiations started last summer and even after a strike which lasted 85 days, one of the longest in Canadian university sector history, York still refused to take any of these issues seriously and flat out refused to discuss many of the union’s proposals. York called for binding arbitration from day one and only moved away from that position after two months had passed. The University administration tried every anti-labour trick in the book in lieu of serious bargaining with CUPE 3903 and in the end relied on the province of Ontario to legislate the workers back-to-work.
This labour dispute demonstrated the oppositional nature of the relation between employer and employee in our society. York’s obstinacy to address the real economic conditions facing their employees and the inadequacy of funding programs for students reveals a lack of concern for its own workers and students. York’s aim is not to nurture a system of affordable and high quality education for the public, nor is it to maintain adequate and stable working conditions for employees—their aim is to maximize revenue. Millions of dollars in tuition, rent, government funding, private investment and donations pour into the university each year, but where does this money go? Senior York administrators receive salaries in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range. In addition to his inflated salary, York President Shoukri receives thousands of dollars in bonuses, lives in a mansion and has a personal driver at his disposal. Is it too much to ask that an adequate portion of York’s budget be put toward providing a fair contract to its employees (CUPE 3903 represents a mere 7.5% of York’s budget)? At York, and within colleges and universities throughout Ontario, we are seeing a widespread casualization of teaching jobs. For example, contract faculty (CUPE 3903, Unit 2 members) do almost half of the teaching at York, but earn less than half that of a tenured professor. Every four to eight months all contract faculty members must re-apply for a position at York, despite some members having worked at the university for decades. This is the future for all students who go deep into debt in order to pursue a university education. And with CUPE 3903’s contract serving as the model for all university workers the desperate state of affairs within the university sector is laid bare.
Forced Ratification and Back-to-Work Legislation
In the third month of the strike the York administration attempted to utilize forced ratification to try to push through a proposal, which had already been actively denounced by the executive and bargaining team of the union and rejected by the general membership. York decided to make a gamble in the hope that after more than two months of picketing workers had become demoralized and so financially worn down that they would cave in and accept a bad deal; however, the opposite proved to be true. CUPE 3903 voted in a strong majority to reject the offer. This was a significant victory for the union and an unprecedented win with none of the bargaining units ratifying the offer. It proved that with strong and resolute leadership and unity within the union the workers have great power. Both the executive and the bargaining team did their job and called the membership to action around this issue. This was important because members became confident that they could actually win. With this victory CUPE 3903 had beaten back York’s last ditch attack and forced it into a position where it finally would have to bargain in good faith. Enter Dalton McGuinty and the province of Ontario to York’s rescue.
After the defeat of forced ratification, York called upon the province to bail them out. Dalton McGuinty (who ran on a platform of education) decided to send in their “top mediator” Reg Pearson to “bang heads together” and find a resolution to the labour dispute in the name of the 50,000 students who were on the brink of losing their fall term. In the first days of “mediation” it became abundantly clear that Pearson’s mandate was not to facilitate a compromise, but instead to give the union an ultimatum - either accept binding arbitration or the province would be legislating you back-to-work. In conjunction with this, CUPE National pressured the leadership of CUPE 3903 to come to a settlement—no matter what contract York offered. The attempt at mediation proved to be a total farce, as the union attempted to compromise by drafting three separate proposals which lowered union demands significantly (even in the end sacrificing the wage demand). All were futile, and the province, claiming there was a “deadlock”, proceeded to pass back-to-work legislation - forcing the union to submit under penalty of heavy fines. This demonstrates the willingness of the state to come to the aid of the bosses in their struggle against workers in this country. CUPE 3903 took the struggle to the media and to the streets and, with NDP support in the legislature, they were able to delay the passing of the bill for a few more days. During this week of action against back-to-work legislation, union members at peaceful demonstrations were subjected to police violence and intimidation with four members being arrested. On 29 January 2009 CUPE 3903 was legislated back-to-work undermining workers’ right to collective bargaining - one which is fundamental to all labourers throughout Canada and which has been fought for throughout the history of the Canadian labour movement. However, despite great opposition to the order from union members, the leaders were unprepared to fight back against the state.
Problems with Organisation: Isolation and Leadership
In order to create a stronger labour movement, workers must assess the strengths and weaknesses within their organizations. CUPE 3903 had the benefit of having truly dedicated and passionate leaders as well as an active membership who rallied together for a long and arduous 85 day strike in order to fight back against their employer for better conditions of life. However, CUPE 3903 was ill-equipped to deal with the possibility that their economic struggle with York University could become a political struggle over the right to collective bargaining. One great disadvantage for the union was a lack of real linkages with other workers in locals throughout Toronto and Ontario as a whole. This compounded with indecision among union leaders at crucial points in the struggle and spelled defeat for the workers. During the strike there were many important financial donations made by other unions which should not go unnoticed, but a real commitment and an active solidarity movement from other unions in Ontario was missing. Many symbolic gestures and speeches were made by CUPE Ontario with little follow through. Many instances of solidarity visits from other CUPE locals, other unions and students were also visible on the picket lines. There were even other strikes going on in Toronto at the same time as the York strike, yet little real movement was made to reach out to these sections of workers and student allies. Workers cannot expect other workers to spontaneously come to their aid in times of struggle. These links must be built and bonds of trust earned. Due to the fact that CUPE 3903 did not take advantage of these opportunities in an effective and organized way, the union remained relatively isolated. The inherent problem is one of unprepared leadership and disorganization within committees that did not adequately prepare for the possibility of back-to-work legislation from day one.
The picket line is not merely symbolic; it is a fundamental feature of worker struggle during a strike. It is educational and morale building, but foremost it is a tool of mobilization. It politically consolidates new union members and serves as a rallying point for union activism outside of the union (between unions). The function of a flying picket is to serve as a liaison between the union and the labour movement in general. The executive should make sure these structures are in place and properly functioning in order to generalize the movement when the time comes. At the crucial point in the struggle when the question of defending the right to collective bargaining was posed in the face of back-to-work legislation it was already too late. No rallying was done within the membership base of other CUPE locals in Ontario or in other supportive unions by the flying picket squad. This significantly weakened any position CUPE 3903’s leadership could take to defy back-to-work legislation as no links were made in preparation for it. In addition to that, no coherent strategic position was taken by the executive regarding defying back-to-work legislation with an illegal strike, nor was this option seriously discussed at general membership meetings. Despite the intended effect this unclear tactic served only to confuse and disenfranchise people. In fact, members of the bargaining team openly opposed this option as a possible avenue for struggle—in an attempt to shut down real strategic debate around this issue. When some members finally did make the call for an illegal strike the motion was deemed out of order. What is interesting is that despite all of the confusion roughly half of the membership supported or were willing to debate the issue of wildcat strategy openly—challenging the chairs ruling. Unfortunately, without a clear direction for concrete actions to oppose the province the final meeting before the legislation was passed became lost in procedural debate instead of addressing the actual political task at hand—back-to-work legislation. In the end, there were some symbolic actions like picketing Queens Park and empty speechifying by CUPE Ontario leadership at rallies. With no one to hold them to their word, or mobilise around actively defying back-to-work legislation, the movement was dead in the water. The inaction of the leadership at this crucial moment led very quickly to the demoralization and disillusionment of the membership.
In 2003, CUPE 2278 demonstrated that it is possible to defy back-to-work legislation and win. Unlike CUPE 3903, CUPE 2278 did not have the advantage of an active and militant tradition within its local, nor did they have ready made structures in place in order to accommodate a drawn out strike. CUPE 2278’s victory was the result of a dedicated and resolute leadership who took the lead in mobilizing the membership and prepared for political struggle from the beginning by building links with locals of other unions in Vancouver in order to beat back the government assault on workers’ rights. This had a mutually reinforcing effect on the labour movement at the time. When CUPE 2278 barricaded the University of British Columbia, workers across BC saw this as the “line in the sand” they were waiting for. Other workers and students soon joined CUPE 2278 in their stand against the Campbell government. With such a militant movement confronting them, the BC government backed off and did not enforce the order. An isolated wildcat strike without strong leadership from the executive of the local and without the active support of other locals in the province is easily crushed by the state—if it does not implode on its own due to lack of confidence in its success.
In the end, rather than leading the workers, CUPE National used a classic bait-and-switch tactic to prevent wildcat action at York. They dissuaded the executive of CUPE 3903 from waging wildcat strike action with the “baited” promise of a legal challenge in the courts which presented a more acceptable legal alternative to illegal action. Once the threat of a wildcat strike had passed CUPE National “switched” their position by withdrawing even financial support for a legal challenge. This left the union with no other option than to obey the province. What is desperately needed is a movement calling for a new militant leadership who are prepared to take the fight to defend labour rights to the very end.
The Way Forward?
How does the union move forward in a positive way from such a crushing defeat without a serious roll-back of the gains that were made during the strike? There are many militant and engaged members of CUPE 3903 and their energy must be directed in a way which builds upon the gains made, while also correcting the mistakes that were made during the strike, in preparation for the next round of bargaining. The most crucial time for a union that has suffered a defeat is the period that directly follows it. Many members are angry and looking for someone to blame for the defeat and the usual accusations will be made. However, the most important thing is that the union not give in to conservative and reactionary tendencies within its membership and maintain its militant attitude and remain united in its direction. This will mean making sure that the leadership of CUPE 3903 is as dedicated to workers struggle as possible. It also means creating avenues for building the links with other workers and students, which were absent during the strike, while engaging union members. The worst sin in a union is for workers to become passive.
Student and union activists need to unite their struggles and politicize the fight for free, accessible and good quality education. Ontario has the second highest tuition fees in Canada and the lowest per-student funding for post-secondary education. York's solution to this problem has been to promote the privatization of education, improve its "reputation" by hiring more tenured faculty whose task is to do research at the expense of quality teaching, hire expensive deans like the one of York's prestigious Schulich School of Business who was paid over $400,000 in 2008, and create a medical school. All this is of course done at the expense of students who are expected to pay higher tuition and the value of the contracts of the workers who do over 50% of the teaching. The key for CUPE 3903's and all university workers’ success is to communicate with the consumers of their labour, the students. The same capitalist system that drives down wages and conditions for workers also increases tuition fees for working class students. The administration, the government and the corporate media will try to use divide-and-rule tactics on students and workers (or between union and non-union workers). We need a concerted campaign to raise class-consciousness and develop an understanding that students and workers all have the same interests, and face the same enemies in the form of the government, the media and large corporations.
At the beginning of an economic recession, with casualization in the university sector as well as many other sectors, workers know that this was not the first attack on their rights in Ontario and it will not be the last. CUPE 3903 must be prepared to respond in an active way to the next attack which is levelled against workers in Ontario. Solidarity is more than a symbolic phrase, it is a radical act, it is presence on picket lines, it is financial and logistical support, it is volunteering time to assist fellow workers who are being attacked by their bosses and the government. CUPE 3903 should be proud of its accomplishments, but must be able to learn from its mistakes in order to fight on tomorrow. The only way forward for workers is to form a united force against the rollback of workers rights across Ontario, across Canada and throughout the world. It starts as small gestures and gradually builds into a force which can pose the question of power in the country. Workers have everything to gain—power over their own labour and their very conditions of life. Fightback works to build a labour movement which is democratic, militant and has a leadership that is not afraid to go to the wall to defend workers’ rights. There would be no labour movement today if workers were not prepared to break unjust laws. Fightback is working extensively to support CUPE 3903 and workers throughout Canada to achieve this aim.