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In my opinion

Learning lessons from the York Strike

Universities’ heavy dependence on part-time faculty merits serious attention, but the union’s proposed solution would be unacceptable to every university in Canada


This year is York University’s 50th anniversary, but in the wake of the 12-week strike by teaching assistants, part-time faculty and graduate research assistants, no one is yet singing “Happy Birthday!” As classes resume, I hope that York students and the community at large will rediscover the university’s dynamic qualities, which are abundant and impressive, though at the moment scarcely on display. As an alumnus with two degrees followed by more than 25 years as a faculty member and administrator at York, I know from experience that the university has a story to tell – a story that might help explain why this strike erupted and why it matters nationwide.

York began in 1959 as a small liberal-arts institution but was soon confronted by a tsunami of Metropolitan Toronto baby boomers graduating from high school and seeking further education in the 1960s. The Glendon College campus in mid-town Toronto spawned a gigantic offspring which opened north of the city in 1965 in a barren field bordered by an industrial park to the east and farmland with grazing cows to the north.

Almost from the moment of its inception, York was an exciting and fractious place. Its founding president, Murray Ross, was a proponent of general education, an approach that required students to broaden their intellectual horizons instead of specializing early in a single academic subject, which was the normal practice at older universities. York encouraged faculty and students to work outside intellectual silos and to explore the potential of “interdisciplinary” studies. Its academic innovations included the creation of a faculty of environmental studies and Canada’s first faculty of fine arts. It pioneered “concurrent” teacher education, which enabled students to pursue a teaching degree and an arts or science degree simultaneously. Professors from one faculty frequently taught in other university programs, something unheard of in most universities. As Michiel Horn’s new history of York University, The Way Must be Tried, illustrates, York encouraged and facilitated academic innovation, and it still does.

As an “alternative” university with a growing interest in social justice and social change, York attracted opinionated, stimulating and at times cantankerous faculty – a number of whom resigned in 1963 over personal and policy disputes with the president. The search to replace Murray Ross in the early 1970s was troubled, culminating in the choice of a compromise candidate, who resigned in 1973 in the midst of a budget controversy after only three years on the job. Not long after, York’s faculty unionized, followed soon by its teaching assistants and part-time faculty. York encouraged a culture of critical inquiry, something that has enriched teaching and learning and that at times has been turned inward, triggering the kind of conflict we have just witnessed.

Despite these internal tensions, and sometimes because of them, York has thrived academically in a range of areas. It has done pioneering work in space science and vision research; its business and law programs (at Schulich School of Business and Osgoode Hall Law School) are renowned internationally; many of its writers, artists, historians, legal scholars and psychologists have achieved iconic intellectual status; and the university has developed exceptional community outreach programs in education and other fields. It has a well-deserved reputation for fostering cultural diversity and social reform. With more than 200,000 alumni, York has become an essential educational hub in the Greater Toronto Area.

York can only continue to thrive by hiring the best full-time faculty it can find – excellent scholars and teachers who can raise the research bar and help strengthen graduate and undergraduate programs – and, like other universities, it must now do this in an era of diminishing financial resources.

This brings us to the core issue of this unfortunate strike. Rather than employing the principle of academic excellence, CUPE 3903 demanded that a significant portion of new full-time appointments be awarded to part-time faculty exclusively on the basis of seniority. The heavy dependence of universities on part-time employees is a national issue and merits serious attention, but CUPE’s “solution” would be unacceptable to virtually every university in Canada.

I was disappointed by the union’s unrealistic demands and paralyzing tactics. It turned down a reasonable contract offer; its job security proposals threatened the integrity of the university’s appointments process; it continuously denied the university’s financial challenges; and it bargained ideologically, not pragmatically. If its passion was admirable, its judgment was questionable. There are lessons to be learned from this experience; one can only hope that they will be.

York will begin anew the rebuilding process. The country will be reacquainted with the university’s outstanding (not only its eccentric) qualities, and before the year is out, a chorus of “Happy Birthday!” will be heard near the fields where the cows used to graze.

Paul Axelrod is an educational historian and was dean of the faculty of education from 2001 to 2008.

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  1. Matthew King / February 11, 2009 at 13:16

    The statement that “CUPE 3903 demanded that a significant portion of new full-time appointments be awarded to part-time faculty exclusively on the basis of seniority” is misleading if not false. It is false if “full-time appointments” is understood to mean tenure-stream positions. (For many years there has been a mechanism in the CUPE 3903 collective agreement to move a limited number of its members into tenure-stream positions, but this mechanism is not based on seniority.) What the union demanded to be awarded to part-time faculty on the basis of seniority were renewable five-year contracts. The union had such a mechanism in its collective agreement for several years until 2005. The York University Faculty Association’s collective agreement now governs the working conditions of those who were awarded these multi-year contracts–known as Special Renewable Contracts (SRCs)–through that mechanism. A mechanism to replace the SRC program was being negotiated in this round of bargaining and presumably will be part of the arbitrated settlement. The new mechanism will not function exclusively on the basis of seniority, but seniority will be an important component.

  2. Bob Hanke / February 12, 2009 at 09:57

    I respect Paul Axelrod’s book — Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education — because, as a social historian of education, he defended York’s liberal arts education tradition and critical thinking against commercialization, commodification, and corporatization. However, he completely misses the academic labour history lessons of the 2008-09 York University strike/lockout. On the issue of “job security,” he omits how the Employer’s bargaining team demanded a 75% cut to a successful, 20-year old affirmative action Conversion Program from CUPE to YUFA for long-term, eligible, qualified, faculty who already teach, do research, and perform professional and community service. For a significant minority of contract faculty who aspire to have full academic careers, the sessional treadmill has become a sessional trap. After more than two decades of working in media studies, the only difference between me and tenured scholar-teachers is job security. The problem is that the declining security of university employment is turning many academics into precarious academic labourers. Contingent inequity is what damages the viability and integrity of academic programs and the reputation of York as a workplace for social justice and social change. Due to the “contract shuffle” for short-term, per course contracts, contract faculty are also disadvantaged in terms of teaching resources and internal/external research support. Overall, over the past decade, undergraduate and graduate enrollments have increased, the number of contract faculty have exploded, and tenure-track positions have been shrinking. Unlike the 2000-01 strike, this strike put the issue of job security for contract faculty front and center. York’s April 30, 2008 financial statements showed, even before bargaining talks began, that the problem would not be to cover the costs of CUPE’s priority proposals, only a problem in the direction and use of funds (symbolized by the $81,000 first-year bonus for President Shoukri and the average salary increases of Deans). In retrospect, the CUPE 3903 pan-unit victory in the forced ratification vote was short-lived and no match for a two-pronged attack against the democratic right to collective bargaining. Internally, anti-CUPE tenured professors, managerial intransigence and a president advised by union-busting lawyers, breached the duty to bargain in “good faith.” Outside the neoliberal university, premier McGuinty, under pressure from the opposition party and public opinion primed by the dominant framing of the strike in the mainstream media, sent in his “top” mediator–for one day. With the passage of Bill 145– the York University Labour Disputes Resolution Act–on January 29th, the “education premier” helped President Shoukri “redefine the possible” by completing the attack on collective bargaining begun by York’s academic managerial class. The lesson is that a dangerous precedent for the university sector has now been set.

  3. Megan S Mills / April 22, 2009 at 19:37

    Given the numbers of habitual part-timers having yet to undertake doctoral studies, publish or perform any sort of service in the community, it seems excessive to demand priority for SRCs.

  4. Ben Nelson / May 24, 2009 at 17:10

    There are a great many things to celebrate about York, and Axelrod touches on some of those things. But there is, from start to finish, an “accentuate the positive” attitude to the essay, where we are meant to rise to protect the name of the university. This is not illegitimate, for I am as enraged as any fellow Yorker in the face of slander against its reputation. But there are good things at York, and bad things. The difference is that if we obfuscate and ignore the bad things by treating them in byline form, instead of reflecting at some length on how they might (and do) reflect massive institutional dysfunction, then we lose out on the chance to learn wise and sensible lessons from (in this case) a massive labor shutdown.

    I just have to correct both Mssrs. Axelrod and King on a point of fact. While an initial demand for seniority-based conversions was on the table a month before the strike, this was not well known. Upon consideration, discussion, and dissemination of this proposal within the union, all hands agreed that this was an untenable position, and the proposal was dropped. Nevertheless, this proposal was touted by the university as being in effect during subsequent months after it was withdrawn, the net effect being to mislead all in the community. So Prof. Axelrod was correct, but surely not in a way that produces the lessons he has in mind. Since he is a responsible scholar, no doubt we will see a correction in print soon enough.

    Also, I believe that Megan is quite right in her comment, as far as that goes, and will leave it at that.

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