by Peter Braun
The austerity agenda that governments worldwide are currently imposing upon workers, students and poor people is now being brought to bear on the post-secondary education system in Canada. In Ontario, this has become especially apparent with the so-called “three-cubed” document, recently leaked to the public. Although this document is merely a “background paper,” and therefore not necessarily intended for implementation in its current form, it nonetheless presents in bold strokes the general character of the re-structuring that the McGuinty government hopes to impose on the post-secondary education system in Ontario. In particular, it recommends reducing the length of undergraduate degrees from four to three years, with each year consisting of three four-month long semesters. More alarmingly, it recommends that all Ontario universities be required to offer three-fifths of their courses online – a move that would, in all likelihood, further reduce the number of teaching positions available for recent PhD graduates. The authors of the document argue that it would allow undergraduate students greater flexibility in completing their degrees, while also making post-secondary education more cost effective and “productive.” However, these same authors fail to consider seriously the pedagogical implications of this shift to more “flexible” education – indeed, it is hard to imagine online courses, wherein students have even less contact with professors and teaching assistants than they currently do, actually improving the quality of education.
It is in this context of looming austerity that CUPE Local 3903, the union representing teaching assistants, research assistants and contract faculty at York University, has been bargaining with the university administration for a new collective agreement (CA). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the union has faced a number of hurdles in their negotiations with the employer. One of the most significant of these hurdles has been the administration’s unwillingness to actually bargain – indeed, for the first four months of negotiations, the administration refused to discuss any of the specific proposals put forth by the union’s bargaining team (BT). Instead, they simply insisted that the union whittle down its proposal package to fit within the austerity parameters that they (the administration) outlined at the beginning of negotiations – namely, a 2 percent increase on the union’s previous CA, which, in the context of roughly 3 percent inflation, would have amounted to an erosion of union members’ real wages and living standards. Moreover, to the extent that actual bargaining did take place in these first 4 months, the process was rather lopsided, with the union agreeing to 22 proposals put forth by the administration, and the administration accepting only 12 of the proposals put forth by the union.
In an attempt to overcome the employer’s intransigence, the union organized a strike mandate vote – this was held the week of March 10th. Of the roughly one-third of the membership that turned out for this vote, 66 percent indicated their willingness to strike in defence of the current collective agreement, and in support of the improvements on that agreement that the union’s bargaining team (BT) is currently seeking. Around this same time, the BT put together an offer of settlement – one that the administration ultimately rejected. Had it been accepted, this proposed settlement would have amounted to an increase slightly less than that recently agreed to at the University of Toronto. Indeed, under the terms of the union’s settlement offer, union members’ salaries would have increased only 2 percent per year – just under the current inflation rate of (roughly) 3 percent. Total compensation under this proposed settlement would have amounted to 4 percent per year. CUPE 3903 members were willing to accept this decline in real wages in return for, amongst other things, the re-implementation of post-residency fees, which would lower the cost of tuition for graduate students upon their completion of coursework.
Despite this attempt at a settlement, the administration chose to continue their policy of refusing to engage seriously with any of the issues deemed priorities by the union membership – namely, the return of post-residency fees; the creation of anti-clawback language to keep the employer from reversing gains won in the CA by issuing reductions elsewhere; the creation of a minimum funding guarantee for graduate and research assistants, who currently make anywhere between 6000 and 9000 dollars per year; and the creation of continuing appointments for contract faculty members, who are currently assigned work on a year-by-year basis. Indeed, although the administration has recently agreed to a number of minor concessions, it is significant that none of these concessions bear upon the above-mentioned priority issues. It’s also significant that the administration has agreed to these concessions only after the recent strike mandate vote – apparently, they had no interest in bargaining with the union absent the threat of a strike.
In light of the administration’s failure to address any of these priority areas, the union’s bargaining team recently filed a “no board” report, putting the local in a legal strike position as of April 12th. Despite filing this “no board” report, the union executive and BT still hope to reach an agreement with the administration prior to the April 12th deadline – indeed, it is hoped that a concrete bargaining deadline and the threat of a strike will force the employer to address the issues that are most important for union members. Whether or not a strike action can be averted is yet to be determined – the administration will make the union a final offer on April 12th, and the membership will discuss then whether-or-not to accept that offer. It’s anyone’s guess at this point which way the wind is gonna blow, but 3903 will be prepared for whatever hits us.