Strike One, Shame on You, Strike Two, Shame on You: Rank and File Reflections on Returning to a Mismanaged University.

By Matthew Dunleavy

A few days before the forced ratification vote by members of CUPE 3903 at York University (a vote that resulted in a high voter turn-out and a resounding “no” to employer’s offer), one twitter user and member of 3903 started a thread asking the question “how [do] we return to work for an employer who hates us?”

This question and the resulting thread stuck with me. On the one hand I kept asking myself the same question. On the other hand, I also wondered—and this may be driven by my research at York that is directly linked to union-formation in Victorian England—I thought to myself, is it only now, in this strike, with this management, that academic workers at York University are realizing that their employer hates them?  Inspired by this twitter exchange and the thoughts it inspired, I reached out to members of the union and asked if anybody would be willing to answer a few questions regarding their return to work and their feelings as employees, union members, and educators. As I write this article, we are at the end of week eight of the strike. I do not know how we will return to work as the employer still refuses to return to the bargaining table in good faith, even during an Industrial Inquiry Commission, so this article will not cover the details of a new collective agreement but rather attempt to capture the state-of-mind of front-line workers doing the bulk of teaching at York. I will articulate how the anger, frustration, and disenchantment with the institutional structure of York can be best utilized in the years to come.

In respect for my comrades who asked to remain anonymous, I have withheld the names of all the members that I spoke to. However, I thank them all sincerely for giving me their time, in addition to one other member who provided wonderful advice on a first draft.

The Employer Is Not Your Friend

Of the members that I spoke to, most expressed strong animosity towards the management of the University. From the President, Rhonda Lenton, to the Vice-President and Provost, Lisa Philipps, to the Board of Governors, the neoliberal managerialist ideology of the university has supposedly now shown its ugly face. This ugly face has come to the surface through: the spread of mis-information (from radio ads lying about the hourly wage of contract teachers to allegedly purchasing a domain name similar to the union and redirecting it to their own labour relations page); the expenditure of hiring a union-busting lawyer from Hicks Morley; and, the decision to employ private security and investigative firms to surveil and intimidate both the employees engaging in legal strike action and the students reclaiming university space in a peaceful attempt to demand accountability from the leaders of the university.

We have about 3,000 members in our union representing varying specializations and life experiences so there seems to be a range of how shocked members are at York’s behaviour during this strike and the lack-of bargaining leading up to it. While some members are stunned at the tactics York has employed, one member shows little to no surprise when placing the strike in relation to other employer/worker relations: “Management being shitty to workers is near universal, even in nominally public institutions like universities”.

Most worrying for some Unit 2 members, is the language York has employed around the conversion program. York’s justification for offering concessions in this area (offering two conversions a year when we previously had eight) argues that “tenure stream appointments represent our present and future leaders in all aspects of the University’s academic mission – teaching, learning and research—and our students expect and deserve these leaders to be from among the most outstanding candidates possible.” When York releases statements like this they are declaring to the students of this university that the educators that teach 60% of their courses are not the “most outstanding”—they are less-than some imaginary outside hire. This creates a hierarchy amongst professors doing the same job: 1) the contract faculty in CUPE 3903; 2) the tenure or tenure-track full-time faculty that were hired through the conversion program; and, 3) the tenure or tenure-track full-time faculty that were hired from outside the university. Although over-bloated tuition rates (that put our students in a vast amount of debt) will not vary depending on who they have as a professor, York is stating that they will be receiving an education that is somehow of a lower-quality if taught by the first two groups of faculty members. We know this is not the case, yet York has told students and outside hires that the dedicated educators that make up unit 2 of CUPE 3903 have no value to this institution except for the underpaid labour they perform. Underpaid labour central to the functioning of York that allows high-salaried administrators to live comfortably as they destroy the academic integrity of the York University.

One unit 2 member listed to me some of the work they do for our university, stating that they “work 60-80 hour weeks, […] volunteer for events, […] lead many dept. pedagogical initiatives, [and] a lot of what [they] do is ‘above and beyond’ (i.e., unpaid),” yet the University is claiming that this dedicated researcher and educator performing both paid and unpaid labour for their students would sacrifice York’s academic integrity via the hiring of the best “leaders” for the university. Another member’s reflection on some of the unpaid labour they perform has been published in its entirety. I would counter that and comfortably state that the contract faculty at York already contains the “present and future leaders” of the institution where we all learn, teach, and work. I would ask if Lenton can comfortably claim that the conversion program risks the academic integrity of the university if she stood in a room with the thirty-nine full-time professors who now have tenure or are on the tenure-track (some who chair departments and are graduate program directors) who signed an open-letter urging her to not offer concessions on the conversion program, or the many other converted faculty members that have gone on to become leaders in their field.

While we engage in our research and teaching we can sometimes become isolated, finding it hard to see ourselves as part of any sort of community as we can spend a lot of time sitting alone in offices, labs, or whatever space we use to work. However, many of the members I spoke to have expressed a feeling of finding a community during this strike. Although they may have been members of CUPE 3903 for years, the strike has sparked them to find and value the rank-and-file members of the union, creating a vast network from picket lines to social media to strike headquarters to phone and e-mail correspondence. As one member puts it, the strike “has built a community at York that didn’t exist in the form it does now before the strike. I have made many acquaintances that I am most grateful to this experience for bringing to my life”.

Nevertheless, we must not take these “imagined communities” communities for granted. They cannot be allowed to stagnate and dissipate once we return to work. If we uphold these rank and file networks, or what labour historians call “the militant minority,” we will be in a better position to enforce the new collective agreement from below, utilizing the rank-and-file members rather than depending on union executives and staff to act on our behalf when the university or other members of the community enact formal or informal reprisals for our disruption this year. We must also support one another in our careers and work. Union militancy and self-activity is not merely for bargaining years, it is for every single day of the working week and then some. If we see members of the union conducting talks at the university (or elsewhere) or organizing conferences, we should fill those rooms or promote them in whatever way we can to show the university and the world that we value their work.

Our Students

With over 50,000 students at our university it is hard to gauge how the undergraduate student body views the members of CUPE 3903—the animosity or empathy students will bring to their classrooms once the strike is over. To be sure, past experience of longtime members make the point that this is often departmentally specific.  With a population so large it is impossible to make a generalization about the students’ view of the strike, without basing your judgment on a percentage of the students voicing their concerns on social media or in open letters. What we do know is that the York management has actively tried to mislead students into believing that the members of the union are greedy and asking contract improvements that are “unreasonable.” To achieve this, they have inundated student’s mailboxes with anti-union propaganda (knowing the union does not have access to those e-mail lists to offer any rebuttal in the same medium); they purchased radio-time to misrepresent the position of the union before a strike was even called; they paid for promoted tweets during the forced-ratification vote that advertised “fast-facts” that deserved anything but the label “fact”; and, they refused to bargain with the union while releasing semi-regular PR statements saying that we are at an “impasse” (it is hard to reach an impasse when the University did not bargain properly for six months: from showing up late to simply saying “no” to demands rather than engaging in constructive dialogue).

However, my survey of a number of members showed very little worry about the students’ treatment of them when they return. Although many showed dismay at the thought that the students they care about have been flooded with propaganda against them, most held a view that their students have the critical thinking and reading skills (which has been encouraged and helped to grow in courses led by the educators of CUPE 3903) to carefully parse the rhetoric of York and see how York has tried to manipulate their student body and the Canadian media. One member I spoke to saw a direct correlation between the assignments she had been working on with students and the skills she knows they can employ when making a judgment about the strike and the relationship between CUPE 3903 and York: “prior to the strike, my students submitted a critical media analysis assignment. I have faith that they have been using the skills learned from that assignment when encountering the material put out by the administration”. As educators, we are invested in the students that enter our classrooms each semester and many of us know that the undergraduate student body is capable of the work needed to see through York’s PR manipulation. The fact that York has attempted to garner favour through misrepresenting the union and outright lying shows how little they think of the student body.

Another element of CUPE 3903/student relations that gives members hope that many of our undergraduate students have not been taken in by York’s communications during the strike, is the mere existence of the ReclaimYorkU movement. Although their larger demands are not specific to our union, they have shown us a vast amount of support and their five major goals intersect with our own refusal to give-in to the corporatization of York University (and universities across the country) and demand an institution that is driven by academic integrity and accessible education rather than profit. We know that fundamentally, this is not possible within capitalism, but ReclaimYorkU is right to demand a return to collegial governance and more oversight of the corporate interests of the board of Governors. As one member points out, a good start here would be Lenton offering an apology for allowing her lawyer to redbait our members during the Industrial Inquiry Commission and single out the intellectual work of individual members to achieve this. Once we return to work, we must not forget these activists; their demands to hold Rhonda Lenton and the Board of Governors accountable for their mismanagement of this strike, and the university in general, will not end once we return to work.

Does a New Collective Agreement Offer Any Protection?

After the 2015 CUPE 3903 strike, without consulting the union or adhering to the new collective agreement, York University unilaterally adjusted the way Masters students were paid. Under the new fellowship model they separated funding from the work requirement. They failed to inform incoming Masters students of this change, even as many chose York at least partially due to membership in CUPE; that meant that new students came to York and found themselves without the benefits afforded by the union and without the valuable experiences afforded by Graduate/Research Assistant work. It also successfully decimated one unit of CUPE 3903 with a loss of roughly 700 members. In reaction to this, CUPE 3903 filed an Unfair Labour Practices (ULP) complaint, which the union put on hold in July 2017 as a sign of good faith for bargaining and in hopes that the union-busting could be addressed and rectified in the new collective agreement.

For many members, this disregard of the collective agreement and clear attempt at union busting will not be forgotten as they reflect on returning to work. No matter what collective agreement we end up with after this fight with our employer, some members worry that Lenton will simply bypass the agreement and do whatever she can to decimate the union. One member clearly outlines how little they trust the administration to stick to a new collective agreement: “I do not trust York in any capacity. They are capable of anything, including inventing a new wheel to use to run us all over. Their goal is to bust our union and I have every bit of faith that they are willing to put any all resources they have, including their $36 mil surplus, into doing it.”

This worry is not unfounded, the CUPE 3903 bargaining team has spent a lot of time trying to close loop-holes in the collective agreement to ensure it will protect us against any change the university decides on at a later date. For example, proposal 47 by the CUPE 3903 bargaining team insisted on the fellowship model to be placed (and, therefore, protected) under the collective agreement. York refused to even consider this proposal, which did not ask for any increase in funding but rather solidify the language around the funding graduate students are offered to attend York University. By not agreeing to this small request, York is signaling that it wishes to keep the fellowship model out of the hands of the union so it can be utilized, changed, and removed whenever the employer sees fit. It is not hard to believe that the employer will eventually create a way to eliminate the hard-won six years of funding enjoyed by doctoral students.

We also cannot just simply believe that Lenton will do what is in the best interest of the university and its employees. Lenton herself points out that we are operating with a different set of principles. Lenton’s conduct during this academic year has been beyond disgusting and she has sacrificed academic integrity and acceptable governance to simply act in accordance with the ruling class interests that constitute the of Board of Governors, itself a board with very little academic background, and certainly very few of the socialist scholars that are York’s claim to fame. This may be simply a reaction to the fact that the York Cross-Campus Alliance (which includes the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 1356 (CUPE 1356), the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903 (CUPE 3903), the York Federation of Students (YFS), the York University Faculty Association (YUFA), the York University Graduate Students’ Association (YUGSA), and the York University Staff Association (YUSA)), spoke out against her appointment in 2016/2017. This could also be due to the sting of defeat, as Lenton was on the York bargaining team in 2015 when they were forced to buy off unit 2 with 8 conversions, and then capitulate to unit 1 and 3, who struck to win after a mere 4 weeks on the lines. This lack of concern about academic governance at York University is most notable in her treatment of the Senate during the last few weeks. Although the Senate is supposedly the body to protect the academic integrity of the institution and has demanded action from Lenton, she has simply ignored and undermined their power by adhering to whatever the Board of Governors think is best. L’Universite, C’est Moi, seems to be her credo. With a management team that clearly has little to no respect for a humanist and democratic understanding of academic integrity or the faculty and staff they employ, it is understandable that our members are worried about how the university will behave regardless of our collective agreement.

However, we must be willing to rally against any action that is even the shadow of York’s recent destruction of unit 3. The moment we get a sniff of mismanagement and union-busting, we must all come together to demand accountability. Regardless of whether the union exec files another ULP complaint in the future, the rank-and-file members of the union must be ready to engage in whatever political action is required to hold the administration accountable. We can be inspired by the wildcat strikes spreading across the US school system and know that our political engagement with the employer and the systemic issues plaguing higher education in Canada does not start and end during a legal strike. We can also learn to politicize what the management attempts to pass off as even the smallest issues in the workplace, connecting unclean offices and inaccessible walkways with exploitation of labour by management.

A Revitalized Rank and File Protecting Each Other: An Injury to One Is an Injury To All

This brings me to my final point. Many of the members I spoke to are at a loss of how to describe the York University community; is there one? Has it ever existed? As a commuter-campus have we have really been a “York family” as President Emeritus Mamdouh Shoukri would always insist? As one member asserts, should we “question the existence of a ‘York Community.’”

However, regardless of trying to define and grasp a mythic, undifferentiated York Community, many members have found (or re-found) smaller communities. Whether these are across campus—like one member who has found an informal support network through the “people who work at York Lanes, at the Lee Wiggins Childcare Centre, at the Ontario Archives, or in maintenance or in the custodial sector, [who] have taken the time to pass on their support and words of encouragement”—or, whether this is a new-found community within our union itself—one member told me, even though this is their second strike, they “now feel a part of a growing community” in CUPE 3903. We must hold onto these networks and continue to strengthen these communities to revitalize and grow our historically engaged rank-and-file membership.

A number of members are worried about informal reprisals due to unsupportive or outright antagonistic departments, chairs, advisors, etc. But many of us will return to work in departments filled with supportive colleagues. With a strong community those falling in the former situation will know that there are over 3,000 people willing to raise their voices against any repercussions for engaging in the legal right to picket. If we hear that a unit 2 member with decades of service suddenly finds themselves with less contracts in a hostile department, after being outspoken about the realities of the job during this strike, they need to know that our members will be there for them. If a unit 1 member, reaching the conclusion of their studies, finds their dissertation unjustifiably stalled because their advisor (perhaps a members of the anti-union and disingenuously titled “Profs4Change” ) disagreed with their stance during the strike, we must be willing to  join our voices demanding that academic integrity is maintained even as Lenton has purposely driven wedges within and between unions and students. Positive relations with the YUGSA are key to this effort as YUGSA is mandated to ensure our rights as students our protected against gaslighting, manipulative academic supervisors.

In closing, I wish to part on something shared with a member who has been around for a number of strikes. Regardless of the collective agreement we end up with the realities of our return to work, we must look upon this strike as an opportunity for “self-transformation from below”. Anyone familiar with socialist thinking will understand that the effect of a strike is not merely about what is won or lost in a labour negotiation but the potential for fostering anti-capitalist, ant-racist, feminist, socialist and anarchist movements. If we hear of any formal or informal repercussions of mistreatment of our members we cannot simply turn to the union exec and file grievances, we must be willing to mobilize (in whatever form that takes) and fight for the university we want York to be. If we stay “plugged in” to the union and other fights across the university, including but not limited to the ReclaimYorkU movement, we may maintain a politicized rank-and-file membership that is willing to fight for a new and democratically governed York University.