On May 14 the academic staff at York University ended the longest strike in an English-speaking university in Canada by a vote of 74.9 per cent and in a separate ballot voted "no confidence" in their administration by a margin of 79 per cent.
How did York get itself into such a mess?
The strike was a long time in coming. The collective agreement had been effectively frozen for three years because of the Social Contract in Ontario. York had the bad luck to be negotiating for the previous year when the social contract legislation was imposed and thus had an extra year of a virtual freeze. York’s salary position relative to the other Ontario universities had dropped like a stone from fourth to twelfth place.
More seriously, the administration treated the York University Faculty Association as having little account. Members of the faculty association considered that the collegial structure of the university had been seriously eroded by the current administration which they thought was far too prone to listen to its business masters on the board than to the faculty and the students.
Negotiations began in February 1996 and slowly ground to a halt as it was apparent the administration wanted to strip the contract of some key provisions. The union was perceived to be ineffective and divided. The employer decided this was a golden opportunity to destroy the influence of the faculty association, undermine the collective agreement, and entrench managerial authority in running the university.
It cynically but very effectively launched a public relations campaign to divide the union on generational lines by arguing that York had a Cadillac retirement plan the cost of which precluded the administration from making a good salary offer which would benefit the younger generation. Those who believed them would eventually be disabused, but it would take more than a year before this would happen.
Meanwhile the union demanded a package that would include modest salary increases and also indicated a willingness to negotiate changes in the flexible retirement plan.
In August the administration took what is now the standard tactic of right-wing employers. They went to conciliation, treated that stage with contempt and brought it to an end as soon as they could. They then unilaterally stripped the contract of its provisions on retirement, changed the date for the payment of ptr increments to the detriment of the faculty, substituted their own article on retirement, and dared the union to go on strike.
This transformed the dispute into one which cut at the very heart of collective bargaining and of collegiality in the university. Members wondered which articles would be stripped next — tenure perhaps. This approach was entirely consistent with the employer’s practice of trying to run the university from the top down with minimal participation by anyone else.
These tactics were initially partly successful. The union held several highly divisive meetings in the summer and early fall with a minority of members arguing vociferously that the faculty association should sign whatever the employer proposed.
However, the majority supported its Chair, Professor David Clipsham, and the faculty association executive who argued that York was in a position to pay more than originally offered and that there were important areas of equity, workload and class size, the use of new technology, and copyright which had to be addressed as well as salary and retirement issues.
Furthermore York had failed to complete negotiations on a pay equity plan, and the union wished this addressed in the collective agreement.
In this context the union resumed negotiations over the winter with the administration but with little result. It seems the employer did not see any reason to negotiate seriously since it had already imposed its preferred solution.
The faculty association then launched a counterattack on the financial analysis of the administration, arguing the employer had hidden money in various accounts that were at the discretion of the board. The board had also indicated it preferred to spend the money for other priorities such as investing heavily in high tech equipment rather than professors — equipment which in some cases failed to produce.
Pay adjustments for the senior administration and the high salary of the new president also excited comment on York campus, particularly given the freeze on faculty salaries.
The union also organized so that its leadership could meet with departments and faculties where it could discuss its negotiating position at greater length and in more detail. This tactic combined with frequent newsletters brought the membership together and ultimately led to a strike vote of 71 per cent in March of 1997.
The strike began on March 19 and lasted eight weeks. It was impressively organized. It is not easy to ensure that nine major entrances to a university are picketed all day long, but this was achieved. The organizers also ensured that there was continuous communication with about 1,000 members throughout the strike by newsletters, the use of the Internet, and by media releases.
Towards the beginning of the strike there was a highly successful rally in Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto followed by a march to the offices of the chair of the board. A candlelight vigil in front of the Toronto home of the incoming president received a good deal of publicity as did a similar picket at the home of the chair of the board of governors.
The union organized a number of meetings during the strike to keep the membership informed which typically had between 500 and 600 in attendance and which on each occasion gave strong support to the leadership.
One of the more memorable moments of truth came at a meeting called by the students where all parties were present. In answer to a remark from one of the students suggesting that the board had some responsibility to its clients, a board member shouted: "I am here because I want to be, not because of you." So much for the fashionable smokescreen about students as clients.
The CAUT Defence Fund paid strike pay as an outright grant and made interest free loans to the faculty association to meet other expenses. The initial amount was one million dollars. Many faculty associations across Canada also donated funds to York University Faculty Association. In addition, trustees of the Defence Fund, the CAUT president and executive director and various members of the CAUT executive traveled to Toronto to join the picket lines.
On May 1 the governing council of CAUT gave strong support to the York University Faculty Association, invoking a general alert to all its members as a consequence of the employer’s decision to strip the contract unilaterally and of the bargaining tactics of the employer — especially the refusal to arbitrate.
CAUT noted there were arbitration provisions built into the contracts at Ottawa, Queen’s, Toronto, McMaster and Ryerson; that arbitration was used last year to settle the differences between the parties at Carleton; and that arbitration was part of the mediated settlement of the strike at Trent earlier this academic year.
CAUT also alerted its counterpart organizations within the OECD. Support for the faculty association came from the British, French, Irish, American, Australian, and New Zealand federations. The British AUT urged its members not to take jobs, participate in collaborative research or attend meetings at York.
The CUPE local at York, representing contract faculty and teaching assistants, gave strong support to the faculty association even though the strike created difficulties for many of its members.
There was also considerably more student support than had occurred in other recent faculty strikes. The graduate students supported the faculty association as did the York Student Federation and the Canadian Federation of Students. This was not an easy route for the students since many of their members were frustrated over the confusion about final exams and marks.
The strike lasted eight weeks. There were a number of weeks of futile mediation by the Ministry of Labour — futile because the employer treated the mediator with the same contempt as it did the union. Eventually the employer suggested a private mediation with Kevin Burkett which the union’s counsel and the executive director of CAUT joined.
The employer’s suggestion turned out to be only a tactical ploy. In the two-day mediation session they did not make a single offer or change anything in their position. It was fairly obvious that this tactic was meant to raise hopes of a settlement and then to dash them. The union in the meantime said it was prepared to accept binding arbitration on all outstanding issues.
Labour leaders in Ontario gave their support. Buzz Hargrove (president, National Automobile, Aerospace, Transportation & General Workers Union of Canada), Gordon Wilson (president, Ontario Federation of Labour), Leah Castleman (president, Ontario Public Service Employees Union), Sid Ryan (president, Canadian Union of Public Employees — Ontario), and Earl Manners (president, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation) issued a statement in support of York University Faculty Association’s struggle to safeguard the quality of higher education in Ontario and to achieve a fair and equitable settlement. They said the faculty association’s offer to arbitrate was a fair and reasonable way of settling public sector disputes.
Naomi Klein wrote in her column in the Toronto Star: "I can’t help cheering for the York professors, who are using the longest strike ever at an English Canadian university to spark an overdue debate about what kind of places universities should be and what role public education should play in a democracy."
One example of this was the outrage expressed by many faculty over the decision of the administration to sell corporate sponsorships for certain courses at the university. The more the administration protested that the corporate sponsors would never be allowed to interfere with the courses, the fewer the people who believed them.
Philip Marchand also wrote in the Star: "Yet something may be gained from the strike if it makes politicians and university administrators think twice about spending money on ‘high tech learning aids’ — i.e. computers — rather than on students and faculty...York University insists that this is not an issue — that salaries and retirement benefits are — but then it’s all a matter of priority. If you spend money on ‘high-tech learning aids’ you have less to spend on salaries and retirement benefits."
One surprise was the restraint of the minister responsible for higher education. The ministry apparently kept in touch with the employer and by all accounts was not amused by the propaganda tactic whereby the administration claimed it was offering an eight per cent salary increase when the government was preaching austerity to everyone else. In fact the administration was offering zero on scale for three years. It found its eight per cent by adding up the automatic steps on the grid, one of which it had already mainly paid. Perhaps this was a case of being too clever by half.
Ultimately the mediation by Kevin Burkett was revived and led to the end of the strike. One of the difficulties in mediation was to decide who really was in charge on the employer side as both the president and the chair of the board were due to leave their posts in the summer. The vice-president (administration) had already left to become president of Sheridan College, and the vice-president (academic) was a failed candidate for the presidency.
The new president, Dr. Lorna Marsden, does not take office until August. There was much speculation as to why the lame duck administration both held on to power and took such a hard-line position.
Burkett recommended a package which had the following characteristics:
- a three year package (backdated one year);
- a substantial sum directed towards "salary adjustments" which the faculty association intends to direct towards the rectification of anomalies: $2 million in the second year, and a half per cent of the salary mass in the third year;
- $650,000 for pay equity in the first year;
- payment for ptr in each year with a slight increase in the value of steps;
- reversal of the administration’s attempt to change the ptr dates (value approximately $300);
- a one per cent increase in the base in the third year;
- a payment of $2,700 to women faculty who retired between 1990 and 1996;
- disagreements over the formulae for pay equity or for anomalies to be decided by the mediator acting as an arbitrator;
- the imposed retirement article modified to restore some of the flexible retirement provisions. It favours those retiring with the lowest pensions. They will have an entitlement to teach after retirement two courses at 2/3 their regular salary. Others will also have an entitlement to teach but at a reduced rate. Mean-minded to the end the administration tried to attach conditions for those at the low end of the scale so that few of them would in practice qualify for the entitlement. The union successfully resisted this;
- emeritus professors to receive a professional expense allowance equal to that of the regular faculty;
- a portion of the employer’s pension holiday directed to faculty association members in each year;
- an article on technology which sets up parity structures to oversee the use of technology;
- provisions in the workload article to give the member a veto over any course conversion to a new technology; and wording in the copyright article which gave members the copyright in their courses and any video thereof as well as in any multimedia or other high technology delivery system. In addition $90,000 is provided for research on the application of technology under the aegis of a joint committee;
- new language to prevent the arbitrary assignment of workloads and to control class size with provision for fair appeals;
- new language to provide a joint committee on the administration of the contract with the power to review long-term planning by the administration; and
- new article on scientific misconduct.
The faculty association executive made no recommendation to the members although the negotiating committee agreed to a wording by Burkett which said this was the best that could be achieved without prolonging the strike. The academic staff were exceedingly reluctant to accept the package, particularly the salary side of it and the back to work protocol.
Most thought, nevertheless, that it would not be prudent to extend the strike into the summer. The consequence was a vote of 74.9 per cent to accept the contract. This was combined with a separate vote of no confidence in the administration of York which carried by 79 per cent.
The strike has galvanized interest and concern about university governance which is focusing on various ways to take back governance from the administration. The academic staff had, for example, discovered during the strike that they could combine with others to control the senate. It became clear at the ratification meeting that the members expected their leadership to continue the struggle against the oligarchy at York by means such as this.
Many had noted that following the strike at Trent University late last year the Trent board of governors had called for an inquiry under Harry Arthurs, former president of York and Joyce Lorimer, former president of CAUT, which had made significant suggestions for the reform of governance and employee relations at Trent.
Given the lack of confidence in the York administration, it is clear that governance at York will come under close scrutiny in the coming months. Already there has been significant activity in faculty councils by the academic staff. There are also a series of joint union/administration parity committees set up under the contract which deal with key areas of university life.
All these approaches suggest the next two years will see a determined effort by the academic staff at York to ensure that never again will the administrative oligarchy be able to rule the university by itself.