11/7/08

Strike turns University into Ghost Town

Related: "York University on strike" • More strike stories: here

Students get a crash course in collective bargaining

A strike by part-time workers has turned Toronto's York University into a virtual ghost town at the height of the November mid-term crunch, with all classes canceled, assignments postponed and pickets letting cars onto the campus only every few minutes.

"I'm looking for tumbleweed, it's so empty," said kinesiology major Michael Peters, 23, who sat in a deserted food court working on a book report and "feeling kind of peeved" at the walkout by 3,350 contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants over wages, benefits and job security.

"From my perspective, I know teaching assistants are important - I have them in all my courses - but if you're working part-time while you're a grad student, you can't expect to be living in the red."

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 walked off the job early this morning over issues of job security, wages and benefits. It represents 1,850 graduate students, who work as teaching assistants (most of them PhD students) and 550 graduate students, who work as research and administrative assistants, and 950 contract faculty, who teach roughly half the courses at York but do not have tenure or permanent status.

No new talks are scheduled, and both sides say it is up to the other to make the first move. York says it is waiting for CUPE to agree to binding arbitration; CUPE says no way, but it would "go back to the table in a heartbeat," says chief negotiator Graham Potts, "if York wants to put a serious offer on the table."

"Some people say we're just strike-happy and we want our day in the sun," said official Sharon Davidson, "but that's simply not the case. We know what's at stake - and it doesn't look good on York.

"If I were a parent thinking about where to send my child to university, maybe I'd think twice about sending my kid to York given the labour history at this university."

A 78-day strike in 2001 did not close down classes, but interrupted them enough that Reading Week (in February) was cancelled so students could make up work.

This time, university officials say they would consider extending the first semester into January, if needed, for students to make up class time, and also at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, commuter buses are refusing to cross picket lines, which are expected to be in place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., although campus services, such as the health centre, banks, library, bookstore, fast food outlets and the gym are open for the handful of students on campus, many of whom live in residence.

CUPE has rejected the university's latest offer, presented Tuesday, which includes a wage increase of 9.25 per cent over three years and improved dental and health benefits and paid leaves, an offer that York officials have said dovetails with other settlements across the public sector.

Already this week, another York CUPE local representing maintenance and grounds workers ratified a three-year deal with the same wage hike, and York University's staff association, which represents clerical workers, also has approved the same three-year agreement.

But CUPE says while its teaching assistants are believed to be the highest paid in Canada - at about $17,386 a year for roughly 10 hours of teaching a week - their wages still fall below the poverty line.

"There is no percentage in being the highest paid workers in a poorly paid sector," said Punam Khosla, a PhD student in environmental studies who is also a teaching assistant and CUPE activist.

"The university has seen the provincial government put more money into universities, tuition fees have been rising and everyone knows when the economy falls, the number of people who enrol in university goes up," said Khosla.

"So yes, we know about funding cuts and the hard economic times, but the university is in a unique position to be able to count of growing revenue from increased enrolment."

York spokesperson Alex Bilyk said that when all the union's demands are factored in, the actual increase it is seeking amounts to a 41 per cent hike, "something that is totally unrealistic."

"We are disappointed with this interruption in educating our students for the future."

The university says funding shortfalls from the provincial government have forced it to plan cuts of 2 per cent to the operating budget for each of the next three years.

The financial crisis has also shown early signs of eroding York's pension plan and endowment fund by 10 per cent.

The university has asked the union to agree to turn the dispute over to binding arbitration, but the union has resisted it, fearing it could lose some of the benefits it made as one of the first unionized groups of teaching assistants in the province.

"It's been 50 years since York began in a farmer's field, and that growth would not have been possible without York's reliance on contract faculty who often teach twice the course-load for about half the pay," noted Davidson.

She said professors on contract can teach up to five courses at a time, whereas tenured faculty typically teach three. Yet contract professors must reapply every semester for their job, even if they have been working for 10 to 15 years.

The union wants the university to restore a five-year contract for longer-term contract faculty that was scrapped in 2001.

"Because of the university's reliance on contract faculty, we've been able to negotiate fairly innovative deals, but binding arbitration would compare us to other institutions," and possibly recommend reducing some of those benefits, Davidson said.

"Most unions don't look at binding arbitration as a good strategy, yet that's what York has been recommending since the third week of negotiations back in the summer."

"I'm not really sure what to do; this strike is very confusing and frustrating," said international student Sade Clarke from Barbados, who wandered from her dorm room this morning to the main gates to watch about 100 students and union activists stage a rally to kick off the strike.

"I was supposed to have a big chemistry test today and I studied really hard for it, but now it's cancelled," said Clarke, who is studying environmental science at York on a full scholarship.

Like many, Clarke said the strike makes it impossible to know when to book a flight home at the end of term - "and the longer we wait, the higher the fares."

CUPE has promised not to interfere with a conference this Saturday sponsored by the advocacy group People for Education, at which education minister Kathleen Wynne is slated to speak.

First-year student Krupa Shah came to school today to visit a friend who lives in residence, and said she felt frustrated she couldn't hand in a huge report due today for her Women and Society course.

"To be honest, like most students, I like having a couple of days to catch up on my sleep, but it'll suck if the school semester or year gets pushed into our vacation," said the English major from Richmond Hill.

"This is the second strike I've had so far this year - I just got through the Viva transit strike last month. What a way to start university."

York students are encouraged to watch the York website for updates on the strike (yorku.ca).

(thestar.com)

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