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Striking to Win

The ongoing strike at York University highlights the crucial role of militants in the labor movement.

Yogi Acharya, a member of the Ontario Coalition against Poverty, speaking at the "Strike to Win! Solidarity Rally" held by CUPE 3903 on March 5th, 2018.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, local 3903 (CUPE 3903) at York University in Toronto began our strike on Rosa Luxemburg’s birthday, March 5. With our practice of rank-and-file driven “bargaining from below,” and a well-earned reputation for being “strike-happy” it seemed an apropos day to hit the lines. Certainly more so than in 2008 when we hit the lines the day after Obama’s election. You can bet that plenty of signs that day read “Yes We Can.”

CUPE 3903, which represents 2,800 teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate/research assistants at Canada’s third largest university, has a reputation for militancy. In 2000–01, union members waged a relatively successful 11-week strike. An 85-day strike in 2008–09 remains the longest university sector strike in Anglo-Canadian history and only ended when the union was legislated back to work by ruling provincial Liberals. In 2015, 3903 was out a month. Both 2008 and 2015 saw division cutting through the local’s left. This year’s strike, on the other hand, sees 3903’s broad left as united as it has been in a decade.

It’s worth emphasizing that these strikes are not temporary work stoppages by a small number of workers, but open-ended affairs that cause significant disruption. They are boot camps for learning about solidarity, reproducing our “militant minority.”

Although York likes to claim that the union rejected a “sector leading offer,” the real reason CUPE 3903 has built up arguably the best collective agreement in the sector has more to do with an open culture, which gives members real democratic voice and permits union militants to organize strikes to defend and extend hard won gains.

Yet, even when CUPE 3903’s militant tradition is factored in, the local’s medium-term pattern of bargaining has seen a strike every other round. In this respect, the main reason behind the novelty of striking for the second time in three years is unfinished business from the previous strike rooted in long-standing grievances.

In the neoliberal university, teaching is increasingly undertaken by insecure and low-paid contract workers. Despite possessing similar skills and undertaking identical work to their tenured colleagues, contract faculty are forced to carve out a meager living on the margins of multiple universities with little or no institutional support. The growth of contract faculty has been flanked by an increase in the number of graduate student teaching assistants earning wages well below the poverty line once their tuition is deducted.

In September 2016, management rolled out a new graduate funding model which replaced the work component of graduate funding with a student “fellowship” covering the cost of tuition and stripped teaching assistants of their summer minimum funding. They went on to axe 670 unionized graduate-assistant jobs, thereby stripping master’s students of a secure minimal income not dependent upon management fiat. In the current round of bargaining, York has also proposed concessions that weaken programs designed to secure more full-time positions, longer contracts, and job security for precariously employed contract faculty.

Far from doing everything it could to avoid a strike, management has done all it can to provoke one and has consistently refused to bargain since the contract expired in August last year — or even since the strike began, preferring to send missives over social media while also expediting the facilitation of scabbing.

The System Made Us York You

It is crucial to avoid the neoliberal trap according to which management is doing their best within a finite pool of resources. Cuts to state funding, reductions in university autonomy from government, and the deregulation of tuition fees have all shaped the terrain of campus struggle in management’s favor. This has been reflected in the erosion of faculty self-governance structures and the growing power wielded by an unaccountable board of governors. Management cries out “financial sustainability” to establish the necessity of further cuts, research commodification, performance audits, and efficiency savings in externally imposed financial constraints and declining student enrollments.

Yet behind the smoke and mirrors, York has consistently managed to generate a financial surplus even with propitiously declining domestic enrollments. In April 2017, York’s surplus stood at $36.4 million — with half of that figure being accounted for by student tuition fees. This data is consistent with a previous study undertaken in 2015 by the York University Faculty Association, which found that despite projected operating deficits in most of its budget statements in the prior ten years, York generated a cumulative operating surplus of $176 million as its revenue, expenditure, and net worth all continued to grow.

Compare this operating surplus with the following figures. CUPE 3903 comprises no less than two-thirds of all teaching staff at York and its members conduct 60 percent of all teaching on campus. Yet, last year the full value of CUPE 3903 contracts was $70 million — less than 10 percent of York’s $715 million in total labor costs from last year. Union members also constitute a significant source of revenue for the university, contributing academic research and tuition fees, paying for campus services, and entitling York to millions of dollars in government grants. So, although CUPE 3903 members do most of the teaching on campus, they account for less than one-tenth of payroll costs and far less than that on net when the revenue they generate is factored in.

Even if we take President Rhonda Lenton at her word when she claims that the original list of 110 demands passed to management by the union at the beginning of bargaining represented a 57 percent increase in the cost of the current contract, nearly all of these demands could be satisfied by York’s surplus in a single year. Certainly, the compromises made since then make it even more “efficient.” Ironically, President Lenton seems ideologically opposed to 3903’s long-standing “conversions” program, while she herself was seamlessly converted from provost to university president.

By representing managerial decisions as forms of expert knowledge that constitute necessary technocratic responses to externally imposed constraints, the discourse of financial sustainability naturalizes managerial hegemony. Ultimately, its purpose is to keep expressions of resistance circumscribed within manageable limits. It’s hardly surprising that it is now being used to justify an all-out attack on hard-won gains. To our bargaining team’s credit, unlike in past rounds it has not bought into this discourse.

The Struggle Ahead: Strike to Win! No Concessions!

That struggle ahead is not without challenges, and York has some new tricks in its arsenal this bargaining round. In previous rounds, the union has benefited from the relative geographical isolation of the York campus and a lack of adequate transport links. Picket lines on a few main roads feeding into the campus could effectively bring the university to a standstill. Now a newly opened subway line linking the York campus directly to downtown threatens to be a Trojan horse and management is clearly banking on it with their decision to keep as many classes as possible running during the strike. However, mobilizing among undergraduate students is also crucial. Students need to know that such a move is against their interests and will only cause chaos. This was certainly the case during the 2015 strike, when the Senate Executive voted to resume a substantial number of classes less than two weeks into the dispute even though GAs and TAs remained on the picket lines.

York has also broken with its past practice by hiring an outside chief negotiator from the union-busting Hicks Morley law firm. A labor and employment lawyer at the firm’s Toronto office with a background in the gaming industry, Simon Mortimer specializes in “the strategic management of conflict and change, where he “consults with employers to proactively manage workplace issues without litigation or work disruption.” Mortimer has previously claimed that CUPE 3903 engages in “student protest” rather than “collective bargaining.” There are few clearer indications of the union-busting intent that informs the administration’s strategy this bargaining round, though York — forever outdoing itself — has also hired an outside “security” firm to monitor picketers.

With remarkable efficiency, 3903 militants have transitioned from bargaining mobilization to strike coordination. By the time you are reading this article, we may be fighting a forced ratification vote, a process by which management legally has one chance to force the provincial government to hold a supervised vote over a series of days. Given that York seems to have already had some success encouraging strikebreaking, this is a moment of extreme urgency.

Moreover, in the likely event of a failed “forced rat,” it seems plausible to assume the provincial government will table back-to-work legislation on the union. This is what happened during the 2008–09 strike; the provincial New Democratic Party tried to filibuster the legislation, but it eventually passed and the strike ground to a bitter halt. The prospect of more back-to-work legislation during the current strike raises challenging questions about the limits of trade unionism in its present form. West Virginia provides inspirational lessons to our rank-and-file network, but it’s too soon to see whether such a process can be replicated in the great white north.

Unions are highly contradictory organizations that simultaneously express and constrain working class resistance to capitalism. They struggle, for the most part, within the limits imposed by the legalistic process of collective bargaining regulated by capitalist states. As long as this remains the case, unions can at best combat the effects of capitalist relations of production without addressing their underlying systemic causes. Yet sometimes there are moments when a strike — even one that ends in defeat — challenges capitalist social property relations, and at the very least, fosters anti-capitalist consciousness among union members. The reconstitution of a militant minority, left unity, and a rank-and-file network in CUPE 3903 is already a victory that will shape the struggle of 2018, and indeed the coming years.

The authors wish to thank Ryan Toews for sharing his expert knowledge of CUPE 3903 financial data.

End Mark

About the Author

Kyle Bailey is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at York University and a member of CUPE 3903.

Jordy Cummings completed his PhD at York University in September 2017 and was a member of CUPE 3903 for nine years. He is a cultural critic, writer, and labor activist living in Toronto and member of the Red Wedge Editorial Collective.