Back-to-work legislation for York University faculty an unsustainable solution

By Muhammad Naeem, August 30 2018 —

On March 5, 2018, around 3,000 members of teaching faculty at York University, including contract instructors and students — consisting of mostly graduate and research assistants — went on strike over job security and salary disputes. The strike, which was estimated to only last a few days, eventually turned out to be the longest strikes by a university in Canadian history. Attempts at negotiation, table talks and bargaining stalled due to an impasse between the university and CUPE Local 3903, which is the union encompassing instructors and teaching and research assistants.

As a result, Ontario’s newly elected Progressive Conservative government passed back-to-work legislation through the Urgent Priorities Act to “get the kids back to school.” This move was no surprise as the PCs announced they would do so if elected during their campaign.

York’s academic staff and its administration are familiar foes. This was not the first labour strike to occur at York — in fact, it’s the sixth strike for the 53-year-old university. What exactly is going on that keeps bringing the academic faculty at York back to the point of resistance? Why has back-to-work legislation — an act passed without any substantial insight into the matter — been imposed rather than a thorough and agreeable solution?

Diving into the history of York strikes provides insight. Librarians and technicians went on strike in 1978, believing that their jobs were in jeopardy due to the increasing technological automation and wanting improved job security.

The 1997 “Equity Now” strike, which lasted 55 days, concerned female teaching staff demanding equal salaries. A 2001 strike contested the issue of underpayment of professors, while another staged in 2008 protested the university backing out on promised cost-of-living raises. The 2015 combined strike of York and the University of Toronto stipulated job security and salary issues, while the strike of 2018 focused on the same agenda.

Through these protest patterns at York, it’s easy to see that the labour issues raised and protested relentlessly by academic staff are prevalent at institutions across North America. Staff job security is being threatened, teaching faculty are underpaid and the autonomy of professors is becoming undermined. As a consequence, universities as institutions of knowledge and research are becoming more influenced by politicians and administrative bodies than ever.

The Ontario government’s back-to-work legislation is not a sustainable long-term solution at York. Instead, the Ontario government should increase public funds for education if it is actually serious about the pressing issue of recurring protests. Postsecondary education is a public benefit worthy of public funding. However, it’s one that is at risk as universities become more privatized. It would be unfortunate for both students and teaching faculty if universities, instead of being a source of intellectual engagement, become a solely commercial platform from being in the hands of private interests where both knowledge and students are treated as profit-generating commodities.

A failure to adequately invest in faculty will result in cynicism prevailing among students and faltering motivation for instructors. Consequently, post-secondary education will suffer.

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