April 18, 2018
York administration’s latest communication, “Two days of mediation produce no settlement”, sets up the provincial Industrial Inquiry Commission to fail.
The second paragraph of the communique says: “While agreement was reached on two issues – lactation and breast-feeding space and professional expense reimbursement – CUPE 3903’s other proposals continue to be well outside the range of anything the university can ever agree to.” (emphasis mine).
That is an extraordinary statement for an employer to make publicly during bargaining. That it is being made in the middle of a mediation attempt brokered by the provincial government makes it astounding. That it is being made in week seven of a strike makes it mind-boggling.
This particular strike has been defined by a very consistent and specific communicative approach by the employer. Before the strike even began, the administration communicated that it wanted CUPE 3903 to go to binding arbitration. In every single communication, several each week for the past seven weeks, the administration has repeated that message – arbitration, arbitration, arbitration, arbitration. The specific issues that separate CUPE 3903 and the administration are less frequently, and less consistently repeated than that message – that this should not be resolved at the bargaining table but at arbitration.
Since the administration returned very briefly to the bargaining table on March 22 only to walk away again and return to the “arbitration” line, it has made several other attempts to avoid bargaining. The supervised vote, announced on March 27th and resolved on April 9th, entailed nearly two weeks without bargaining. When CUPE 3903’s members rejected the employer’s final offer in the supervised vote, the administration admonished the membership, said it was “disappointed” in the vote, and suggested a new approach – arbitration. There is very little explanation behind this mantra. York’s president said in a radio interview that fundamental principles separate CUPE 3903 and the employer – these principles were the principle of open hiring and of students being able to receive funding without a work requirement. These principles have been bridged in past agreements with CUPE 3903. They have been bridged in other collective agreements. There are ways to fulfill CUPE’s concerns about job security and the benefits of union membership for MA students without sacrificing the employer’s stated principles – but only through negotiation.
If the administration had an interest in bargaining, they would have countered CUPE 3903’s proposals. On March 22nd, CUPE reduced their demands. The administration, instead of countering, publicly said that CUPE 3903’s demands were unrealistic. After the supervised vote, the administration reiterated that CUPE 3903’s demands were unrealistic. Over the weekend, meeting with the provincial investigator, CUPE 3903 again reduced their demands. The administration publicly repeated that CUPE 3903’s demands were well outside the range of anything the university can ever agree to. On three occasions, York could have countered and did not. That is contrary to the conventions of bargaining, as CUPE 3903 said in one of their communications. Submitting successive, reduced proposals is not good bargaining practice – it is called “bargaining against yourself”, and it is to be avoided. York has asked CUPE 3903 on three occasions to bargain against itself – or accept arbitration.
The administration’s approach is not explicable in terms of differences of principles. What can explain it is if avoiding bargaining is the principle. Union bargaining teams receive their mandates from their members. Employer bargaining teams receive mandates as well. Trying to reverse-engineer the employer’s mandate based on their behaviour, it seems to me that they care less about any particular proposal and more about avoiding the table altogether and settling any disputes through arbitration. Long-term, if this strike ends with CUPE 3903 surrendering – if enough violence occurs against picketers, if the demonization of union members succeeds, if they become weary enough to give up with no end in sight (and the administration’s communique explicitly states that it has every intention of letting the strike drag on throughout the summer) – then it will be counted as a major victory for the employer, regardless of the costs to York’s reputation and enrolments. The summer terms will drop one by one, fall enrolments will fall, and the administration hopes, CUPE 3903 will break.
The notion is (perhaps) that reputation and enrolment can be rebuilt, but breaking CUPE 3903 on campus will be a lasting achievement. But the truth is that a union can be rebuilt too, even after it is broken, though lasting damage can be done to morale and community through a forever strike.
Justin Podur, Chief Negotiator, YUFA