More than 100 days into the longest-ever strike in the university sector in English-speaking Canada, lecturers and graduate students at York University are facing a crossroads. Exhaustion and division in the union are undermining the struggle. While an important layer of the union rank and file want to continue the struggle and refuse to accept concessions, there is another layer that has become more and more demoralized.

The union leadership has been unable to provide a way forward to rally the union members to continue this important fight. Sessional lecturers who make up “Bargaining Unit 2” of CUPE 3903 are voting on whether to ratify a concessionary deal as this article is being written.

This deal was agreed upon by two rogue members of the bargaining team in a secret meeting behind the back of the union. It accepts the position of the university administration, which has stubbornly refused to bargain throughout this strike, to send the important issues to binding arbitration. Conversion appointments, which were the central issue, will be sent to an arbitrator, as will almost the entirety of the benefits package. And there will be no guarantees that the administration will not carry out reprisals against union members and supporters.

A combination of economic pressure, which is particularly felt by the lecturers who depend on more of their income from the university, and the inability of the rest of the union leadership to put forward a viable path towards victory, has meant that this disgraceful deal may pass. This was shown by the results of the initial vote taken on June 13, which was thrown out for voting irregularities. Agreeing to this deal would mark a big blow to the strike, as it would take about 1,200 workers (out of a total of about 3,000), off the picket lines and back into the classrooms.

Doug Ford’s victory in the Ontario provincial election sets the stage for an assault on the trade union movement, with the strikers at York being the first group of workers in his crosshairs. Ford has said that he will institute back-to-work legislation as one of his first priorities once the legislature resumes towards the end of June.

Drive out the scabs!

The actions of these two bargaining team members representing Unit 2 (out of three) has had a very disorienting effect on the membership. The rest of the union leadership has condemned these actions but this is not enough.

They should be removed from the leadership and a recall process initiated. The actions of these two individuals, colluding with the boss and violating democratic processes in order to weaken the strike, is no different than scabbing. They secretly maneuvered with the university administration against the rest of the elected leadership and against the rest of the union. They openly breached the democratic structures and discipline of the union. They betrayed the trust of their co-workers and secretly worked with the employer. These two individuals should be openly labelled as scabs in the union and punitive measures should be taken by the union against them. Unfortunately, these two individuals were allowed to address the union meeting on June 13 without punitive measures, and were able to mobilize for a “yes” vote for their concessionary deal.

This concessionary deal should not have been accepted as legitimate, as it was a product of breach against the democracy of the union. Instead of allowing a secret ballot of Unit 2 on this illegitimate deal, the rank-and-file should have had the right to decide how to move forward. Members of all three units should have been able to vote on how to proceed on this “scab” deal in an open vote.

Rallying the entire membership would have counter-acted the demoralizing effect of this betrayal by two members of the union leadership. Unfortunately the union leadership legitimized this deal. While condemning the process and calling for a “no” vote, they nonetheless gave these two bargaining team members what they wanted by moving straight to a secret vote of Unit 2 – without first allowing the rank-and-file to give its input and decide on the solution.

Don’t surrender to either Lenton or Ford!

A strategy for winning the struggle is the only way to raise the morale of workers in all three bargaining units. Those in the union leadership who have been advocating against the concessionary deal for Unit 2 with the York administration and not accepting binding “interest arbitration” have not put forward a convincing alternative plan.

The argument raised by this wing of the union leadership is that the workers should continue to strike and not make a bad deal with the university administration. Instead, they should wait several weeks for Doug Ford’s Conservatives to legislate them back to work and put them under binding arbitration. The argument is that a deal imposed by Ford’s strike-breaking legislation would be better than what could be reached with the York administration and President Rhonda Lenton.

This is not a convincing argument, nor does it raise enthusiasm to struggle, and in any case it is simply not true. It will be hard to convince a worker to lose pay for another several weeks by continuing a strike based upon a strategy that leads to the strike being broken by the state. It is an entirely defeatist perspective. It makes sense why workers would simply accept defeat now and cut their losses, rather than make more sacrifices only to face certain defeat later, which is the perspective which the rest of the union leadership is putting forward.

There is no reason to believe that a better deal would come about after Ford carries out back-to-work legislation. Ford is fiercely anti-union, has a history of demanding concessions from public sector workers (from his time at City Hall), and he has made an election promise to find $6 billion in “efficiencies” (i.e. cuts). The arbitrator that would be imposed as part of back-to-work legislation would not be neutral.

Under the Ontario Liberals, who feigned as “friends of labour”, there was severe pressure to push down wages and worsen work conditions of public sector workers. When the Ontario Liberals took the right to strike away from York University workers in 2008 or against Toronto transit workers in 2011, the imposed arbitrators were given specific instructions in the legislation that made them openly biased against the workers. The following “guiding principle” for arbitrators was included in these two pieces of Liberal legislation directed at the transit and York University workers:

“In making an award, the arbitrator shall take into consideration all factors it considers relevant, including the following criteria:

  1. The employer’s ability to pay in light of its fiscal situation.
  2. The extent to which services may have to be reduced, in light of the decision or award, if current funding and taxation levels are not increased.
  3. The economic situation in Ontario and the City of Toronto.
  4. A comparison, as between the employees and other comparable employees in the public and private sectors, of the terms and conditions of employment and the nature of the work performed.:

The Conservatives would likely be even more severe than the Liberals. It is untrue that accepting defeat under Doug Ford as opposed to Rhonda Lenton will lead to a better result for CUPE 3903. This line of argument will not convince workers who are demoralized and financially struggling.

Fight and defy!

A path forward for winning the struggle against the York administration and the Doug Ford government is necessary to maintaining the morale and unity of the union. If the Unit 2 lecturers decide to return to work today, this will be even more important as the strike will have become weakened.

A strategy for defying Doug Ford’s back-to-work legislation must be drawn up. This legislation would mark the opening battle in Doug Ford’s declaration of war against the working class. Surrender would invite further aggression against CUPE 3903 and the broader labour movement. CUPE 3903 taking a stand, and rallying the labour and student movement around itself, could put Ford on the back foot.

CUPE 3903 should express its intention to defend its right to strike by defying anti-democratic legislation by Ford. It should call on the labour movement to prepare for solidarity action, mass rallies, and sympathy strikes in the event that Ford mobilizes the state apparatus against them. The lessons of the 2003 illegal strike by the UBC teaching assistants, which had a Marxist leadership and led to an important partial victory against the right-wing, union-busting Campbell regime, can be very instructive in the current struggle.

There is an enormous desire to fight Doug Ford in Ontario. There are already demonstrations planned against Ford’s attempt to halt the planned increases to the minimum wage by the Ontario Federation of Labour. There are spontaneous rallies already being organized at Queen’s Park, led by the youth. Youth from ages 18 to 34 are overwhelmingly hostile to the Conservatives and those who made it to the polls strongly voted for the NDP. Sooner or later, a period of open class struggle will begin under Ford’s rule.

CUPE 3903 has been one of the union locals that has stood at the vanguard of the labour and student movement in Ontario for the past couple decades, a fact the bourgeois press has been keen to highlight as it demonized the union. The top administration and Board of Governors want to break CUPE 3903 and put an end to the tradition of radicalism at York University, in order to ensure the dominance of the campus by the capitalists. The ruling class wants to set an example of CUPE 3903 and Doug Ford intends to symbolically mark the beginning of his rule by forcing this union local into submission.

CUPE 3903 must resist the pressure to surrender. The bosses want to use CUPE 3903 to teach a lesson to the labour and student movement that struggle leads to defeat. The road to surrender must be rejected. To defeat the bosses, the struggle must be undertaken with a plan that can inspire the membership to continue the fight. The message that should be sent to the broader movement is: the bosses can be defied and they can be defeated. This would resonate powerfully across the province.