11/6/08

York University on strike

More strike stories: here

Militant unionists blame employer

York University students face picket lines and empty classrooms this morning after 3,350 contract faculty and teaching assistants walked off the job at midnight. Classes have been canceled, disrupting the schedules of the 50,000 undergraduate students who attend the sprawling suburban campus.

Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 voted late last night to reject the university's final offer.

"It's clear that the university administration is pushing us to go out on strike," said union Chairperson Christina Rousseau in a release. "Over the last three years, our members have had to work harder with less job security and fewer resources."

Rousseau said earlier in the day she was not prepared to accept the university's latest offer of a 9.25 per cent raise over three years because it fails to provide job security to contract faculty and does not tie wage hikes to the rising cost of living. According to the union, their membership does more than 50 per cent of the teaching at York University.

York University spokesperson Alex Bilyk said the university is committed to resolving the strike as soon as possible.

"We all need to put the needs of students first and agree to a binding arbitration that would be the best solution for the university's 60,000 students, faculty and staff," he said, adding that the next move lies with the union.

University officials have said they believe their offer is fair and note it is the same deal York's custodial and maintenance workers – members of another CUPE local – voted to accept earlier this week.

"Currently, the union's demands are unrealistic and unaffordable and completely out of line with other settlements with other universities in and around Ontario," Bilyk said.

The university decided to cancel classes to avoid the sort of confusion that arose in an 11-week strike in 2001 when some classes continued and some did not.

Gilary Massa, a fourth-year political science student, told the Star late last night that she wants to see a fair deal quickly hammered out between the university and the union.

"We need it as soon as possible so that students are not affected for a long period of time," she said.

But Massa, who is also the vice-president (external) of the York Federation of Students, said she believes the union's demands are fairly reasonable.

"The university has a responsibility to meet those demands," she said. "What is currently being offered to CUPE is peanuts.

"As undergraduate students, our year will be interrupted and it will cause inconvenience. But we understand the struggle of having to pay high tuition fees and we're in support of the (contract) faculty having job security."

Contract faculty must re-apply for their jobs at the end of each semester, noted union spokesperson Pat Daley, often despite having taught for many years. CUPE wants the university to restore a previous five-year contract that used to be offered to longtime teachers. That five-year contract option was scrapped in 2001.

Daley said the average teaching assistant, who is also a full-time graduate student, teaches about 10 hours a week but often spends more time marking papers and preparing. Many work in the summer semester as well.

Teaching assistants earn about $17,386 per year, and pay about $3,700 a year in tuition after tuition rebates have been factored in.

The union had been seeking a two-year contract with a 7 per cent raise in the first year, and in the second year, a 4 per cent raise or cost-of-living increase, whichever is more.

Edwin Cao, a first-year student studying biomedical sciences, said he will continue to study for an upcoming biology mid-term examination scheduled for Sunday.

"This doesn't change my preparation for stuff like that," he told the Star last night. "They could go on strike tomorrow and settle on Friday and I'd still have a test on Sunday."

Some of his professors have anticipated the strike, Cao said, and assigned essay questions to work on for assignments due in December.

"So if a strike does progress, I'll still have work to do," he said.

Yesterday, theatre students Akosua Amo-Adem and Lindsay Stone were buoyant from opening night of their big play Tuesday night but feared it could close abruptly due to a strike.

The two fourth-year acting majors said they were upset The Fire Raisers, a play they have been rehearsing for more than a month, would be cancelled. The director of the play is a teaching assistant.

(thestar.com)

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