Carla Lipsig-Mummé



The recent 11-week strike by York's 2,100 teaching and graduate assistants and sessional lecturers, members of CUPE local 3903, was not your average public sector strike. It was long, the workers were the precariously-employed underclass of their workplace - and the union won. In winning, they have kicked off a new stage in the struggle for unionization in our increasingly commercial universities. They may even have opened a new front in the battle to maintain
public higher education in Canada.

In any strike, there are three faces to victory. There is the language in the collective agreement; the public 'take' on the settlement, and how the union movement uses the gains. In this strike, there were three core issues: the indexation of salaries to tuition for teaching assistants in Unit 1 of the local; job security for sessional lecturers (Unit 2); and a decent first contract for the graduate research assistants who had recently won a long and dirty struggle with the York administration over their right to unionize at all (Unit 3).

Higher education has become a service industry - behind the language of community and scholarship, employers maintain an underclass. Wages and benefits were an issue for all units, but tuition indexation for teaching assistants became the pivot quickly. In the past, the union negotiated contracts that ensured that its members would receive pay raises as tuition rises under deregulation. It is a very creative way of using the collective bargaining process to deal with public policy.

Tuition indexation for teaching assistants had been unique to York contracts for a number of years, and the employer was now proposing to end it when the present generation of TAs completed their studies. In making tuition indexation the centrepiece of demands, CUPE was, in effect, fighting for the next generation and other universities. It was also insisting that it would go to the wall against employer clawbacks. The contract language registered a solid victory for the union on all these issues. The victory was all the more sweet because members had massively rejected the government-supervised ratification vote forced on it less than a week earlier.

The second face of victory, the public reading of the strike and the settlement, is more complex. Not surprisingly, the media and the York administration invoked the student community, the ghost at the bargaining table, to clobber the union. In many public sector strikes, the struggle for the minds and hearts of the users of services is key to both settlement and life after signing the contract. And in many public sector strikes, the translation of union concern for the interests of the community into strike strategy comes too little and too late to ring true. In the York strike however, union and community concerns came together sufficiently for students to register support, even as they expressed their fear about losing their academic year.

But there is also a political context to the public take on the union victory. It now seems clear that the York Administration was prepared to 'wear' this strike to rid itself of tuition indexation, or indeed, any lien on its ability to raise tuition. To that end it stretched out the bargaining, and seemed to believe either that the union did not represent its members, or that it could starve them into settling. When neither proved the case, it turned to a nasty piece of coercion, the law which allows the employer to call on the government to supervise a vote on its last offer. Rejected by a 2/3 majority, York's administration was now between two rocks and a hard place: students and their parents who believed the university did not care whether they lost an academic year; a union whose internal solidarity had been reinforced by outrage at the forced ratification vote; and the Harris cabinet. The last, which had not played a visible role in the strike, could be seen to be readying itself to take over the employer's side of the negotiations, in effect putting York into receivership. The sloppy, vitriolic, threatening columns by John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail telegraphed those moves.

As the employer returned to the bargaining table in the weekend of January 6, following its failure to force a ratification of its offer, President Lorna Marsden made a tactical blunder that cost the administration mortally. When Marsden ordered the students and the full-time faculty back to the classroom and hired busses to assist in crossing the picket lines, a crisis of legitimacy broke out. Isolated, fearing that the Harris government would step in, facing a union which had recreated solidarity after almost 3 months on strike, the York Administration settled, and forfeited any of the ordinary public sympathy that employers usually garner when facing successful unions. The coming together of all unions on each campus for coordinated bargaining - or even for mergers - would strengthen campus unionism

CUPE's handling of the strike, the settlement and the public perception of it, have given the union movement a unique opportunity in Canada. Over the past decade, universities' growing use of contracting out, part-time contracts and the privatization of services have eroded secure employment and created a mosaic of precarious jobs. But a message has now gone out nationally from the York strike: the unravelling stops here. We will fight if universities continue to try to solve their public funding shortfalls on the backs of their employees. We will try to use collective bargaining to re-open public access to higher education. And if anyone can, unions in the higher education industry can make these things happen.

But the York victory also reveals an urgent need for change in how unions handle the struggle. As labour-friendly American academics Kate B. Bronfenbrenner and T. J. Juravich brilliantly argued in their country, the increasingly commercial university cannot continue to maintain the fiction of a community of scholars and scholar-apprentices. Higher education has become a service industry whose employers deploy the language of community and scholarship to maintain an underclass. It is more than time that each of the campus employee groups: full-time faculty and part-time faculty, graduate teaching and research assistants, support staff and students, as well as employer representatives - recognize the reality of class relations on campus, and organize based on that reality.

At present, campus workers are organized in a messy mosaic of union groups, sometimes several uncoordinated locals of the same union, sometimes a number of separate unions, not to mention the workers whose outsourced jobs fall outside the protection of unions. There is compelling reason to argue that the coming together of all unions on each campus for coordinated bargaining - or even for mergers - would strengthen campus unionism. And there is further reason to believe that if the campus unions forced university employers to bargain as a group, instead of one campus at a time, the results would be considerable. The third face of victory is the most challenging of all.

This piece was originally published in Straight Goods, January 29, 2001