As a resident of Toronto, with friends who work and study at York University, I have, like many Torontonians, followed the strike by contract faculty represented by CUPE local 3903 with great interest. The voices that seem to be aired in this labour dispute seem to be of those who do undoubtedly lose out: the students. Nonetheless, while I have a great deal of empathy for the difficulty that the 50000 undergraduates at York have faced, I sometimes wonder if they 'get it'.
CUPE 3903 has 3412 members, and, like many universities in Canada and the US, does more than 50 per cent of all undergraduate teaching at York. The union wants a wage settlement that is above the rate of inflation, a 2 year contract to harmonize the York contract with those of other CUPE university locals, job security, better working conditions, an end to the student code of conduct at York, and post-residency fees. Utlimately, though, this strike is about improving job security.
It is, in my view, important to remember just who are striking. Within the membership 871 are 'contract faculty' who sign a contract to work a certain number of months a year. The remainder--teaching assistants and graduate assistants--work part-time. So the York strike is above all else a strike by part-time workers for improved terms and conditions of employment, including some job security. It is the sort of thing that sensible people take for granted.
In this light, that the provincial government feels that it is necessary to pass back-to-work legislation to force the local back to work should be seen as an affront to sensible people. Back-to-work legislation, which I disagree with in principle, is usually passed to get essential services back up and running. This is what happened last year, for example, when the Toronto Transit Commission, which runs public transport in the city, went on strike. However: how can part-time workers be deemed an essential public service? If their work is essential, why don't they have a properly paid and secure job? These are the key questions that are missing in discussions about the strike.
The reliance of North American universities on part-time and insecure faculty demonstrates the extent to which neoliberalism has reconfigured tertiary education. Neoliberalism in the public sector relies on insecurity and fear to get the job done. However, casualization and flexibilization are not the basis by which to create a worldclass tertiary education sector where students actually learn. The strike demonstrates that some people are not prepared to kow-tow to such a regime. CUPE 3903 continue to deserve the full support of the people of this city.
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