April 30, 2018
By Dana Phillips
It’s the refrain we hear over and over again: “those poor students, caught in the middle of persistent labour disruptions at York university.” What follows is often, as in Martin Regg Cohn’s recent Toronto Star column, a rebuke of striking union workers for being so darn unreasonable, under the thin guise of balanced journalism. Sure, goes the argument, teaching staff have legitimate concerns, and precarious work is a problem. But why does CUPE local 3903 insist on being such a troublemaker?
I would be the first to argue that students do deserve better, and I’m confident that my fellow CUPE members, by and large, feel the same way. Many of us are students ourselves; we are also experiencing disruptions to our programs of study, in addition to significant losses in income, and ongoing economic uncertainty. Nearly all of us work closely with students whom we care about and want to see succeed. This is no small part of the reason that we continue to stand up against an administration that is in the business of lining its own coffers at the expense of quality higher education.
Like all unions, CUPE 3903 has its own internal politics, and these have in times past been admittedly problematic (as has York’s own governance). But to suggest that the union’s grievances therefore have no merit is simply fallacious. CUPE 3903 is not an outlier, as Regg Cohn suggests—it is a sector leader. The hard won rights of CUPE 3903 union members have set a precedent for precarious academic workers across the country at a time when the rapid corporatization of universities should be what has us all alarmed and outraged. This is why arbitration is not a good option for CUPE 3903; you can’t lead the way through a decision-making process that bends towards the status quo.
One of the biggest points of dispute in this strike relates to the job security of Unit 2 contract faculty. York argues that providing opportunities for experienced contract instructors to transition into tenure-track positions (in lieu of the usual open search process, but with the same high bar for granting tenure) threatens standards of teaching excellence for students. And yet, York relies on contract instructors in short-term, low-paid positions to teach more than a third of its classes (more than half if you count teaching assistants). If York is truly concerned about teaching excellence, one wonders why the administration is currently fighting to have more courses taught by full-time graduate students from Unit 1, who are generally less qualified than the Unit 2 contract instructors they would be replacing. There is nothing good for students about having “professors” who are overworked, underpaid, and unsure of where their next paycheck is coming from.
CUPE 3903’s proposals for Units 1 and 3, meanwhile, focus on ensuring accessible and equitable access to graduate education for future students—i.e. current undergraduates. While CUPE looks towards the future, however, York and much of the media remain fixated on the strike’s most immediate impacts, thereby losing sight of the deeper issues threatening public education for years to come.
One of the problems with opinions like those of Regg Cohn is that they assume that striking workers are primarily to blame for what is happening to students at York. This is nothing new; it comes up all the time on the picket lines. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that it is easiest to blame those who are out in the cold day after day, physically obstructing the way to classes, degrees—business as usual. It seems as though these are the people that chose to mess everything up for everybody.
What, though, about the choice of York administrators to refuse to come to the bargaining table for weeks on end, while CUPE remains ready and willing to negotiate? What about the economic and educational systems that place highly educated and skilled people—the people we hope our students will become—in the position of struggling to make ends meet? The ability of these causes to remain invisible is what gives them their power and privilege.
The university and the public are rightfully concerned about the well-being of York’s undergraduate students at this difficult time. Unfortunately, they seem much less concerned about the well-being of those who provide the bulk of those students’ education, and who, in many ways, reflect those students’ own precarious future.