Strikes take energy, time, commitment and able leadership. At York University our colleagues showed they had more than enough energy, time, commitment and able leadership to see them through the longest strike in the history of Canada’s English-language universities.
I won’t soon forget hours and days spent with YUFA members on cold and blustery (and occasionally dangerous) picket lines. The talk, the walk, the songs, the marches and the tough arguments, all were signs of strong community in a great university.
Across Canada, provincial governments and university administrators watched every move that YUFA made. The York strike was seen as a precedent in Canada and in Ontario. It was precedent setting not just on the central issues — compensation, retirement plan, class size, and tech change — but also on two broad issues we "outsiders" fully appreciated only as the strike wore on.
Toward the end of the strike I addressed a huge membership meeting. Just before the meeting, like all YUFA strike meetings I attended, there was an informal "pre meeting" of about 100 members.
The argument at that meeting was that the union’s claims weren’t just about compensation, a fair retirement deal, and demands for improved working conditions (especially sensible class sizes). Yes, these were important, but they also raised questions about equity. It had become obvious that compensation at York was not equitably distributed, nor were retirement benefits.
Although the system is fairer now than it was before the strike there is still some distance to go at York before that university becomes equitable in every sense. This is, of course, true for all our universities, and we can thank York for showing ways of thinking critically and constructively about this whole question.
In the final days before the strike’s end, another informal group met to discuss university governance and how governance might be changed after the strike. Here again, there was no doubt about members’ strong support of strike action. They understood the issues dividing the union from the administration. But these colleagues were also thinking back and thinking ahead, asking how they could reduce the likelihood of another strike of this kind.
Their main point was simply that academic governance at York had gotten away from the professoriate. It had become possible at York to say that class size and academic quality were not related; that budget decisions had nothing to do with academic decisions; that corporate direction of the university was both necessary and inevitable; and that centralized, "managerialist" decision-making had begun to blur the differences between administrative/financial convenience and academic necessity.
The solution on this front was, according to this group, likely to be time-consuming and difficult, but far preferable to governance by fiat followed by strikes.
The first step is to reclaim the senate for the professoriate, within the limits set out by legislation. A second is to give the senate the great political and administrative strength it deserves. The YUFA senate caucus was, after all, a key player during the strike, ensuring that administrative unilateralism was effectively countered. If the senate could help to mitigate and even to end the strike, surely it could become a lever for more profound change.
The governance discussion group concluded that York’s students, publics and professors should now "examine the ‘culture’ which makes it hard for people to speak out on committees, councils and senate; to make the Senate Nominating Committee an open and participatory body; to monitor the board of governors; and to consider holding university-wide symposia about the institution’s culture and standards (how could we have got to the stage of allowing corporate ‘logos’ on courses without careful prior discussion?)"
Yes, this was a strike about dangerous policies and practices that threaten all of us, in every Canadian university. But it was about equity and governance, too. The York strike was, and is, a call to action of a kind we hear too rarely. For the courage and determination we saw at York, we say bravo! And now, it’s for the rest of us to take back our universities.