Strike to Lose
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Strike to Lose

Scott Library, York University campus.

After eighty-five bitter days, government back-to-work legislation has brought the CUPE 3903 strike at York University to its ignominious end.
Although the anti-strike group YorkNotHostage trumpets the legislation as a victory for students, York University President Mamdouh Shoukri looks to the future, and CUPE 3903 congratulates itself for taking the high road, the strike is a disaster from any perspective.

York’s undergraduate students have already suffered tremendous losses. Despite the university’s policies geared toward preserving academic integrity during what York euphemistically terms “disruptions,” the strike went on too long for students simply to pick up where they left off three months ago. Compressed fall and winter terms will require students to absorb knowledge, write essays, and study for exams in a few short weeks, an exhausting exercise that will challenge York’s best students and overwhelm its most vulnerable—difficulties that expanded counselling services and academic workshops will do little to alleviate.
The extension of the academic year until June 2, 2009 will reduce summer employment opportunities that undergraduate students—members of York’s true working class—rely on to pay next year’s academic expenses. Premier McGuinty’s promise of “flexible” OSAP loans rings hollow to strike-affected students who have already gone deeply into debt to pay for their education. Students applying to post-graduate programs risk losing out because the strike has prevented them from completing courses and obtaining transcripts and letters of reference by the normal deadlines for doing so. On top of everything else, students face the possibility that the value and reputation of their York degree will have been eroded by the long strike.

Ross Building, York University campus.

For his part, York President Mamdouh Shoukri has acknowledged that the university has suffered a terrible blow to its reputation. With applications already down between fifteen per cent and forty per cent for next year, York must either reduce its academic standards or offer fewer courses—a catch-22 because either outcome will drive away the highly qualified students York seeks to attract. York has also earned itself an anti-labour reputation for its part in the deadlocked negotiations, despite having successfully bargained new collective agreements in 2008 with its largest non-academic unions, including CUPE 1356 (the union representing maintenance, security, and parking employees), and the York University Staff Association.
And the union? Having “demanded the impossible” and gambled everything only to end up losing it all in the end, CUPE 3903 is humiliated and broke. Unless the local can extract more money from CUPE National (not so likely given that 3903’s parent organization has already hemorrhaged millions of dollars in picket pay and refused to pick up the tab for an unwinnable legal challenge to back-to-work legislation), 3903 members will face significant monthly dues increases at a time when they can least afford them.
Despite 3903’s decisive defeat of York’s “final offer” at a supervised vote on January 20-21—the union’s single victory during the strike—the union has fractured along ideological lines, with radicals and reactionaries squaring off over whether the union went too far or not far enough.
At the same time, by striking itself into a three-year collective agreement, 3903 has cut itself out of participating meaningfully in university-sector coordinated bargaining in 2010, a year when member locals of the Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee plan to negotiate simultaneously in order to maximize bargaining gains.
Perhaps worst of all, 3903 faces the likelihood of massive job losses among its ranks in the coming year, with declining enrolment and budget cuts hitting the vulnerable contract faculty whose precarious jobs the union was supposed to safeguard.

Scott Library, York University campus.

How did all of this happen? How did CUPE 3903 find itself striking to lose? Although the union blames York for refusing to bargain, 3903 was equally intransigent, forbidding its own bargaining team from negotiating until well into the strike and adding new demands even in the final days before back-to-work legislation was introduced. A related problem is that the union was never able to reconcile what it saw as its larger fight against neoliberalism with the more immediate need to negotiate a collective agreement its members could live with. In the end, CUPE 3903 appeared to go over the ideological deep end in a strike that has cost York its reputation and students much of their academic year, and that will result in the union ending up with a collective agreement that many members believe would have been better had the union abandoned some of its dogmatism and committed itself more purposefully to bargaining.
Torontoist contributor Amy Lavender Harris is a longtime member and former Chair of CUPE 3903.
All photos by Michael Chrisman from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.