Reflections on the 2018 York University Strike
By: Karl Gardner
Photo Credit: Rachele Gottardi
It’s around midnight on Sunday, March 4th, and I’m sitting on a broken chair beside a printer in the deserted CUPE 3903 office. The office is quiet and cold—we’ve already moved almost everything to “Strike HQ,” just outside of York University property. I’m printing flyers and membership lists for the rally happening in 10 hours. The only noise other than the buzz of the printer is my phone’s constant ringing with questions, emails, and “did we remember’s.” I won’t be getting much sleep tonight, and I begin to suspect this will be the case for a while.
The next morning, on March 5th, 2018, members of CUPE 3903 walked off the job and started what would become the longest strike in Canadian post-secondary history. For 143 days, thousands of teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate assistants held picket lines on both of York’s campuses, faced down the Employer’s threats and surveillance, and endured much physical, emotional, and financial hardship in order to resist capitulating to the University’s concessionary demands.
While our Bargaining Team had consistently shown that they were willing to be flexible and discuss options of how to achieve a new collective agreement at the bargaining table, it had become increasingly clear that York was taking a different approach than they had in past bargaining rounds. For York, our new contract was decidedly not going to be the product of bargaining, but instead of our union either agreeing to arbitration or submitting to eventual back-to-work legislation from the province. Of course, neither of these options was acceptable to our members. The decision to strike is never an easy one, but after six months of unsuccessful attempts to get the University to remove concessions and begin to bargain in good faith, we knew that it was a decision that must be made.
Given that, at the time of writing, we are still awaiting the results of the binding arbitration that the Conservative government forced on us through back-to-work legislation on July 25th,
it should go without saying that the 2018 York University strike still looms heavy over many of our heads. Many members are still dealing with York’s administrative retaliations, as many of us remain unpaid for work done over multiple past semesters. More concerning, York continues to pursue draconian sanctions against eight students for the perfectly legal activities they engaged in during the strike in what can only be understood as a concerted effort to chill future dissent on campus.
Below are my reflections on both the political context of the 2018 York University strike, as well as on the strike itself. While I did hold a key position leading up to and throughout the strike (Chief Steward Unit 1 [teaching assistants]), I write this piece as a current rank and file member, and the opinions expressed are my own.
Our Political Context
In February, as our bargaining was coming to a standstill and we were already preparing for a strike, education workers in West Virginia began a historic strike, which saw 20,000 teachers and public school employees walk off the job and shut down schools in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties. The militant wing within this historic strike, largely made up of women, proved in a big way that the strike remains a powerful tactic that can win substantial material gains in the face of hostile employers and lawmakers.
The strike in West Virginia set off a series of additional job actions, resulting in successful state-wide strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma, and numerous county-level strikes in Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. Workers were winning sizeable gains across the US in a way we hadn’t seen in years, and provided an air of optimism as we stared down a strike deadline.
Here in Canada, there were a variety of factors structuring our political context. On campuses across the country, and especially at York, there were three notable trends that loomed over this round of bargaining.
First, there has been a considerable shift toward centralizing administrative power on campus. This is, in part, due to the declining levels of government funding that universities across the country are receiving. In a discussion with Board of Governors representative Joel Roberts, he noted that as public funding for universities continues to fall, what funding there is left is increasingly tied to provincial performance metrics. This shifts a university’s priorities away from providing holistic and quality education, and toward goals like fundraising, advertising, research, monitoring and surveilling department performance, corporate partnerships, and profitability. There have also been shifts within the governing bodies at York, in both the Senate and the Board of Governors, with power increasingly being centralized in the small executive committees that now steer the University with a heavy hand.
Additionally, there has been a steady growth in the number of administrative positions at York, with two-thirds of these positions being compensated over $150,000 a year. Altogether, the statistics show that York University is shelling out just over $26 million dollars a year in administrative salaries, which is up from under $10 million 15 years ago. While this is certainly a high cost for a ballooning administration, York is certainly able to afford it: last year, CUPE 3903 publicized that York made over $35 million in profit in the 2016-2017 fiscal year alone.
Despite this fact, it is students who are picking up the bill for these administrative positions through our tuition and fees, which is the second trend I’d like to note. A recent study done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) exposed that, on average, tuition and compulsory fees at Canadian universities have tripled since 1994. Over the same time period, tuition fees as a share of university operating revenue has about doubled, rising from 20% to almost 40%. Parallel to this trend, we have seen an alarming 40% rise in student debt in Canada in the last 10 years. Altogether, this paints a concerning picture: as post-secondary degrees are becoming more required in today’s job market, we’re taking out more loans to pay skyrocketing tuition fees in order to increasingly subsidize underfunded universities. Universities then turn around and try to cut labour costs and cut corners in the education they provide. All the while, they are increasing the number of overpaid administrators within their ranks to “manage” every aspect of University operations. In every respect, students and workers lose in this process.
The third trend I want to touch on is the nation-wide trend toward precarious academic work on campus. According to recent Freedom of Information requests filed by the CCPA, it was found that more than half of all academic appointments in Canada are now precarious, contract work. Amongst this group of contract workers, 80% are part-time. It’s been clear that this is where we’ve been headed for years now, but we’ve unfortunately passed an important milestone where part-time, contract employment is the new norm in Canadian universities. Beyond this, York went after an entire Unit of our union in the last two years, eliminating 90% of Graduate Assistant jobs, pushing them into non-unionized, part-time, fellowship-based gigs. Given the alarming and interconnected nature of these trends, now more than ever academic workers must connect our struggles to those of students to form a united front against the assault on universities across Canada.
CUPE 3903 on Strike
It’s within this context that CUPE 3903 went on strike. As this year’s strike deadline approached, we were feeling better prepared than in 2015—a strike that we were quite unprepared for but through which we secured modest gains to our collective agreement. What we were less prepared for this year was York’s complete disengagement from the bargaining process.
There was a notable change in York’s bargaining strategy. In addition to sinking large amounts of money into a contract with Enterprise, an expensive public relations firm, York also retained Hicks Morley, an infamous, union-busting law firm to take on the lion’s share of bargaining responsibilities.
Hicks Morley worked with the University to table a wide menu of concessions and refused to move on many of the proposals CUPE 3903’s membership identified as key issues. In our bargaining meetings, the majority of York’s bargaining team (mostly made up of high-level administrators) spoke and contributed very little, consistently deferring to their lawyer, despite him routinely being misinformed about the details and operation of our collective agreements. After unsuccessful bargaining meetings, York would routinely attack the union in the media and send misinformation to our students.
Instead of bargaining, York initially gambled on waiting for our members’ morale to drop and then imposing a forced ratification vote on us. They did this after the first month of the strike, and in a clear display of unity and resilience, 87% of our membership rejected the offer. We thought this victory would get York back to the table, as it had in the past, but instead they turned their attention toward the Wynne government and lobbied for the Liberals to table back-to-work legislation.
Wynne, under the pressure of a looming election and plummeting approval ratings, instead created an inquiry commission to investigate the status of labour relations. An obvious stalling tactic, the inquiry came and went with little effect—save for documenting York’s complaints about CUPE 3903’s history of rank-and-file led bargaining practices. In a last ditch effort to save her ratings, Wynne introduced back-to-work legislation right before the provincial legislature would close for the election period, knowing full-well that when the NDP opposed and blocked the legislation that she could blame the continuation of the strike on them.
Once the election period had begun, York decided to sit on its hands and wait for a new government to be elected before petitioning for back-to-work legislation once again. Weeks passed. The day Ford was elected, York’s President Rhonda Lenton took to twitter to congratulate him on winning and to share her excitement to work with his new government. It was clear that ending the strike via arguably unconstitutional back-to-work legislation was a priority for the Ford government. Nearly a month after Ford assumed office, we’d be legislated back to work.
Reflections on the 2018 Strike
There were many changes afoot during the last year of bargaining and the strike. In past years, the ebb and flow of regular bargaining meetings kept members both engaged in the process and somewhat hopeful for a resolution. In line with this, our messaging and impetus behind different rallies and actions were around “forcing York back to the table.” However, this was not to be the case this year, as York only agreed to precisely two days of bargaining over the five-month strike, instead opting to wait us out, attack us in the media, and shamelessly lobby for back-to-work legislation.
The longer we stayed out, the clearer it became that bargaining was never on the agenda for York—this was the year they’d chosen to cement the cuts they’d made to Graduate Assistant jobs and try to slash the programs and funding we’d set up for Contract Faculty and Teaching Assistants. This climate led to members becoming increasingly frustrated and exhausted, and eventually set the stage for two contract faculty bargaining team members to feel emboldened to break multiple union bylaws and act against the interests of the union by secretly signing an agreement with the University in June.
This isn’t to say that we were ineffective, however.
In addition to holding down eight different picket lines and a “virtual picket line,” members also held many militant actions on and off the picket lines that kept the pressure on. Members and allies bird-dogged Kathleen Wynne to increase the political costs of introducing back-to-work legislation; visited the offices of individual Board of Governors members; held a May Day protest across campus and disrupted a Board of Governors’ meeting the same day; organized marches and picket lines downtown at the Ministry of Labour and Queen’s Park; and even dug a 525 square-foot Big Gay Garden right at York’s main entrance. Perhaps most inspiring was the three-month undergraduate student reclamation of York’s Senate Committee Chamber, which became a hub of undergraduate student organizing and solidarity with CUPE 3903. A space to discuss undergraduate-specific issues and also ultimately served as a poignant reminder that York’s attack on workers was also clearly an attack on the quality of student education at the university.
We also had a network of support from other unions and labour organizations. Folks from Unifor and Local 416 consistently helped with strike supplies and picket materials. The OFL supported us by organizing days of hard pickets across the university and brought out many members to support our lines. Workers from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (who, at the time of writing, have been legislated back to work and are occupying no less than three warehouses in defiance of this legislation) helped organize a strike school on the picket lines, holding a week of public educationals on capitalism, labour issues, and unions. We had countless allied organizations and unions visit our lines and many fellow workers and members of the public bring us hot drinks and snacks.
Despite the actions and the connections we built, and despite the majority of members not capitulating to the University’s demands, by the time back-to-work legislation came down we were spent. The idea that it was better to oppose this legislation but ultimately be legislated back to work rather than to capitulate and sign a concessionary deal—an idea I still believe is true in principle—is certainly not an inspiring mentality to find oneself in at the end of a 5-month strike. Additionally, we missed the opportunity to deepen our connections with the Student Reclamation and with undergraduates more generally. Despite the fact that many of us are students as well as workers, and that once students had more info about York’s attack on CUPE 3903 many were quite supportive of our struggle, we failed to organize these sentiments to build a stronger front against York. These were not necessarily conscious choices we made, however, but often due to a lack of capacity and the exhaustion of a small core group of people who were ensuring the day-to-day operations of the strike were running smoothly.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it would mean for us to have taken the same stance as York on bargaining, however.
What if we simply said that we would not bargain until York gave us a reasonable offer? What if our attention and organizing resources weren’t sunk into a broken bargaining process, but instead spent expanding our base of support within our membership and building connections with students and other workers on campus?
How would this have transformed our strength and capacity to organize militant actions during the strike, as well as organize defiance against back-to-work legislation?
It’s no secret that as the strike continued on as long as ours did, the number of picketers began to fall, buy-in began to wane, and resources began to thin out. And this was all part of York’s plan. What would it have taken to stop these trends, however? What if we had turned our efforts toward deepening our organizing within our membership? Toward building power and solidarity amongst more of our members rather than simply mobilizing them to attend this or that rally or picket line, all with the goal of kickstarting bargaining, which ultimately York wouldn’t engage in.
I think at the core of all this is the fact that York University’s strategy and our political context changed, but we didn’t change quick enough to match these things. York’s hardline strategy of non-bargaining, the addition of 2 TTC stations inside campus that bypassed our picket lines, and the growing power of corporate governance within the University are important aspects we’ll need to address if we are forced to strike again when our collective agreement expires in 2020. And we may have to: York and Hicks Morley have already made it clear they will be attacking our democratic bargaining practices next round by demanding closed door bargaining meetings, less input from members, and demanding that we bargain as separate units rather than collectively. Further, at a time when York is still pursuing punishment against eight students for activities conducted during the strike, we’re seeing what will likely be a clamping down on dissent on campus via the Conservative government’s Bill C-148. Though it’s still early in the process, this Bill seems to be nudging universities across the province to come up with “free speech” policies that may end up protecting hate speech while curbing the activities of student groups committed to social justice.
Striking to win in the future requires a bold departure from some of the practices we’ve used in the past. Routine and predictability are dangerous for our union and for the labour movement more generally. But creativity, militancy, and deep organizing to build mass movements are dangerous to employers. If we stay content just mobilizing those we already know are on our side, we won’t grow as a movement and we end up burning each other out.
We need to begin thinking in radically different ways: what would it take for CUPE 3903 to get stronger the longer a strike continued? What could a strike look like with the other workers and students on campus actively organized and on our side? What would it take to rebuild the labour movement to a size and strength that the political costs of coming after our wages and working conditions become too high for governments to consider? As CUPE 3903 and now CUPW have shown this year, employers are simply refusing to bargain and routinely being rewarded for this behaviour by our governments. It’s time for us to excavate the radical labour histories of the past for lessons, and begin thinking boldly about how we are going to strike, and win, in the future.
The author thanks Joel Roberts, Susannah Mulvale, Stuart Schussler, and Mike Palamarek for their help in thinking through these complicated questions.
CUPE 3903. www.3903.cupe.ca
Griffiths, K. D. When Women Organize, We Win: lessons from the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Truthout. 2018. https://truthout.org/articles/when-women-organize-we-win-lessons-from-the-west-virginia-teachers-strike/
Kurtz, M. The Rising Cost of High-Income Administrators at York. Excalibur. 2018. https://excal.on.ca/the-rising-cost-of-high-income-administrators-at-york/
Cain, P. University tuition fees in Canada rise 40 percent in a decade. Global News. 2016. https://globalnews.ca/news/…/university-tuition-fees-rise-40-per-cent-in-a-decade/
Shaker, E., and Macdonald, D. What’s the Difference? Taking Stock of Provincial Tuition Fee Policies. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 2015. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2015/09/Whats_the_Difference.pdf
Shaker, E., and Pasma, C. Contract U: Contract Faculty Appointments at Canadian Universities. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 2018. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/contract-u
About the Authour:
Karl is an organizer, educator, and student based in Tkaranto. He organizes with No One Is Illegal-Toronto, and is also involved in his union, CUPE 3903, and Indigenous solidarity collectives working inside and outside the city. Once in a while, he works on his PhD at York University.