No end to York strike as government holiday begins

50,000 students left in the cold as standoff continues


As Ontario’s legislative assembly recessed for its two-month winter break, back-to-work legislation aimed at ending an five-week old strike at York University was nowhere to be seen.

The strike, which began Nov. 6, has resulted in cancelled classes for 50,000 students who are now facing the prospect of a lost semester.

Audio: Ontario Minister of Labour on York strike

Also read: Unless York strike ends soon, classes stop Dec. 15

York students demand government action

Talks between the University and CUPE 3903, which were supervised by a provincial mediator, broke down just days into negotiations. The two sides were unable to reach any kind of agreement and the mediator called off talks, saying they were not making any progress.

Students have called on the government to enact back-to-work legislation so they can return to classes and not be at a disadvantage next year as they compete for summer jobs and places at graduate school.

“Universities are autonomous institutions,” says Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities John Milloy. “It’s very unfortunate that there is a strike situation at York; we are encouraging both sides to get back to the table.”

Both opposition parties spent the last day of the legislative year calling on the government to take action to end the strike, although the two parties disagree on how exactly this might happen.

The Progressive Conservatives are calling for back-to-work legislation and binding arbitration. The New Democrats are calling on the government to pressure the university to make a better offer to the union.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful that [Premier] Dalton McGuinty hasn’t brought in legislation at this point.” says Jim Wilson, education critic for the official opposition Progressive Conservatives. “It’s unconscionable… students have been left to fend on their own.”

“I’m hoping the Minister will, in the next day or two, force the university to come to a fair settlement,” says Rosario Marchese, NDP education critic.

Marchese says the problem has been brewing for a long time. He says government underfunding has resulted in universities balancing their books by hiring casual contract instructors instead of full-time faculty. One of the union’s issues in the strike is job security for contract faculty.

“I’m hoping that in the next day or two [the strike] will be solved, and I’m hoping the Minister is going to push them to solve it,” says Marchese.

The Tories are calling for the resignation of the Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities citing the York strike and a scathing report by the provincial Auditor General on provincial training programs.

With labour unrest looming at the University of Toronto, Wilson is concerned more students will find themselves caught up in the growing labour turmoil with no hope of government action to assist them.

“This government has no plan to deal with these things and doesn’t seem to care.”


No end to York strike as government holiday begins

  1. Maybe if the government used their useless “Please, Please come back to the table and resolve the issues” with the added incentive of some milk and cookies for these children making a mess of York U students education, then maybe it will be resolved. Who am I kidding though, if CUPE does not realize that these economic times are not right time to ask for more money and job security when nothing can be guaranteed. Especially when your members such as your T.A’s are getting a more than adequate wage, roughly 4 times minimum, to work less hours than a 40 hour work week that students usually need to put in to cover their tuition dues; then this will never be resolved.

    With bigger businesses such as Chrysler threatening to pull out of Ontario and potentially throwing 8000 more people into the unemployment pool; no job security can be guaranteed.

    And for the governments comments on maintaining good labor relations, I would like his definition on that. Because if it means to conceding to unions every demand, and let them have their way of disrupting countless lives with strikes; they may keep their good labor relations, but it definitely is not helping public relations.

    At least Christmas Break is going to be that much longer for the York U students. Have a Merry Christmas.

  2. Everyone keeps forgetting about the “forced ratification” card that York can play.

    And they WILL play it.

  3. wut is forced ratification? is it possible we miss this year? I only have one course to finish to go to med school, I am really worried!

  4. Here is CUPE’s take on forced ratification:


    Basically it is a clause in labor relations allowing YorkU to get members of CUPE to vote for an agreement.

    Ratification can still get rejected, which gives no certainty to the situation, and after reading the article it seems that CUPE is trying to nip the chance of this being settled by forced ratification in the bud.

    If I were you Ali, I would look for an equivalent course offered by a nearby university. Most Registrars can advise on if courses are equivalent. But UofT will be on strike come January so maybe McMaster, Western. But those may be out of reach.

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  6. A forced ratification is a new labour clause introduced by Mike Harris. It allows the employer to bypass the democratic structure of the union and call for a direct vote on a “final offer.” It is administered by the Ministry of Labour, with no provision for notice or quorum. It is also important to note that it can only be used once.

    In almost every case, over all industries and unions, a forced ratification vote fails because it is a deal that is proposed without the support of the union executive or bargaining team. It fails for a number of reasons. Often the employees disagree with the the employer circumventing their bargaining team. Also offers are often bad, containing clauses that undermine the agreement.

  7. Jen, almost everything you say about forced ratification is inaccurate.

    First, the forced ratification provisions are found in sections 41-42 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995, S.O. 1995 c. 1, Sched. A, which was passed in the early days of the Harris government. However, the exact same clauses were contained in the previous Labour Relations Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. L.2, sections 39-40. So you’re wrong. They were not “introduced by Mike Harris.”

    Second, these clauses do not “allow the employer to bypass the democratic structure of the union.” Forced ratification requires the union to vote yes or no to an employer’s most recent offer. The democratic body of the union that makes this decision–the entire membership–is the very same democratic body that ratifies a tentative agreement recommended by a union’s bargaining team. In both cases, the membership retains democratic control over the decision.

    Third, it is not true that forced ratification is administered “with no provision for notice or quorum.” This would be bizarre, because terms like notice and quorum need to exist in order to conduct a properly organized vote. The legislation in fact gives the Minister of Labour the power to determine notice, quorum, and indeed all terms. Hence, these terms are in fact provided for. They just aren’t prescribed in legislation, for a number of obvious reasons (e.g., you couldn’t legislate one set of terms that would work in every scenario).

    Fourth, it is not accurate to say that forced ratification can be used only once. Forced ratification can only be requested by the EMPLOYER once (in a given round of bargaining). However, the Minister of Labour also retains a power to order a ratification vote in the public interest, and the Minister may use this power any number of times. (compare sections 41 and 42 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995).

    I thought you were some kind of expert in industrial relations, Jen? Or maybe just a self-appointed expert who’s blowing smoke?

  8. I never think that insults are useful to dialogue, so I wont respond to your attack. I will however clear your accusations that the information is some how inaccurate. The points you raise should not be presented as objective truth. You raised common points of debate.

    Mike Harris introduced many unpopular amendments and new language to the labour relations act, changing industrial relations fundamentally in Ontario, this includes union recognition, scab labour and forced ratification.

    By passing the elected bargaining team and executive of the union is undemocratic, it undermines the legitimacy of the memberships representatives.

    Your third point is not mutually exclusive of my critique of the legislation. I reiterate that the legislation contains no provision for notice or quorum. I see this as a fundamental problem. The legislation itself contains provisions and standard systems for other types of union votes.

    I also reiterate that it is important to note that York can only use forced ratification once, and less significant that the Ministry of Labour retains the provision. The fact that the York administration can not use forced ratifications over and over again means that Yorks forced rat offer might be a starting point in re-opening negotiations and ending the dispute.

    An expert no. Just a student of industrial relations who wants to see a fair and prompt resolution. Part of that is provide the public with information and to have these kinds of debates. But I would suggest that a constructive dialogue is stronger then attacks.

  9. Jen,

    You are completely wrong about Mike Harris introducing forced ratification. It existed in the previous legislation. The Harris government didn’t even toy with the words a little bit. Forced ratification was exactly the same AFTER the Labour Relations Act, 1995 was passed as it was BEFORE. This can be objectively proved by checking both statues. You will see that forced ratification did not change during the Harris years.

    Look, I am no fan of the Harris regime. But what you’re saying is inaccurate. I’m not sure why you want to blame Harris for forced ratification. Is it about discrediting forced ratification by associating it with Harris, or about discrediting Harris by associating his government with forced ratification (arguably a drop in the bucket, since there are so many other more important things that discredit the Harris regime)?

    So, again, it is totally untrue that the Harris government introduced forced ratification. I don’t know why you insist in perpetuating this falsehood.

    You’re also wrong that the Labour Relations Act, 1995 doesn’t provide for quorum and notice. You seem not to understand the difference between PROVIDING for something in legislation, and PRESCRIBING it. Perhaps this is simply because of your lack of a legal education. But read sections 41 and 42 of the Act, and you’ll see that all terms of a forced ratification vote are provided for. You seem to object to the Minister of Labour being given the power to set these terms. I suppose that issue can be debated. But it doesn’t make your claim true. The Act provides for these terms, just not in the way you would like.

    Forced ratification “undermines the legitimacy of the membership representatives”? Not at all. Forcing a ratification allows the grassroots of a union the opportunity to vote on the employer’s most recent offer even if the union leadership doesn’t want a vote. The result will do one of two things: (1) it will prove the legitimacy of the union leadership, because the membership will agree with them; or (2) it will prove that the union leadership wasn’t legitimate, because their position is at odds with the members they are supposed to represent. Either way, the forced ratification vote does not itself undermine the legitimacy of the bargaining committee, but simply permits an employer to test that legitimacy by going directly to the members. The union leadership is either legitimate, or not. A forced vote allows us to see which is the case.

    You can call this undemocratic if you want. I suppose I must grant that you are allowed to hold whatever views you want about what is democratic.

    Finally, I agree with you that the employer’s one-time opportunity (in a given round of bargaining) to request forced ratification is, in this case, more significant than the Minister’s ability to order it any number of times. What bothered me was the blanket statement that “it can only be used once,” which was inaccurate. I think we need to be as complete and accurate as possible when we describe the laws and structures of labour relations. Many people will read these pages and take what people like you and I write as gospel (which is their mistake, but it points to the responsibility to be as complete and accurate as can be managed).

  10. The Labour Relations Act contains no standards around quorum or notice. As the York administration is beginning to mobilize for a forced ratification vote, the public should be made aware that important aspects of the vote are fluid. This context can help in understanding how a vote can be conducted in the middle of Christmas vacation with little notice, and low turn out. In my opinion there should be legislation with clear standards preventing such a scenario.

    As for your points regarding the nature of forced ratification, the employer has already received a test on the legitimacy of the unions bargaining team and executive during the strike vote. Holding further votes undermines the democratic authority of the representatives.

    My opinion is that the context of the current Labour Relations Act is important. Mike Harris made major changes that shifted the balance of power to the employer in 1995.

    Strikes are not objective topcis, and I completely disagree with asserting arguments by using imperatives such as “falsehood”, “wrong”, not “true”, “inaccurate”. But I don’t mind engaging in discussion on issues if folks can agree to disagree. Refraining from inflammatory language will help in focusing opinions, as it will force a better substantiation of arguments.

  11. Also, why the uncritical defense of the forced ratification system?

    Especially, and I think we can agree, the quickest method to get us back into class is for York to get back to the negotiating table so that both sides can start to bargain out a solution to the industrial dispute?

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  13. A forced vote will be interesting because it may reveal a split between faculty and non-faculty within the union. Both groups have different issues and a different stake in the outcome of this dispute.

    I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of “One Big Union” in which different workers are part of one large union instead of several trade-focused unions.

    This is the second strike I’ve covered in which a bargaining unit had a clear division between demands among two different groups.

    Last year’s University of Regina/University of Saskatchewan strike was a similar situation. USask was primarily academic staff, whereas URegina was primarily non-academic support staff. Having spoke with many contacts at USask, I’m left with the opinion that it was primarily a URegina strike. Had USask been part of separate union, you would not have seen a strike there.

    USask staff didn’t get much anything out of the strike which they wouldn’t have received from their administration without a provincial wide negotiation.

  14. Jen,

    Your style of argument is quite something. I’m going to put two propositions before you.

    #1. “Forced ratification is a new labour clause introduced by Mike Harris.”

    The above proposition is one which is susceptible of proof. Hence, we can say that it is true or false. In this case, the statement is a falsehood, not true, inaccurate, and wrong. We can easily prove whether it is true or false by looking up the pertinent legislation and finding out when forced ratification votes were introduced, and by whom. If you ever bother to do that, you will see that the provisions dealing with forced ratification votes existed for many years before Mike Harris ever came to power.

    #2. “Forced ratification votes are a great thing!”

    This statement is obviously evaluative in nature. To assert or refute it presupposes all sorts of other claims about what ends our collective bargaining system ought to achieve, and what means best achieve those ends. This is the sort of statement that people can debate about, and may well have to agree to disagree about.

    Now, on to the substance of your claims.

    First, I would not characterize my stance on forced ratification votes as being one of uncritical support. So far I have not defended forced ratification votes at all except to say that they were not introduced by the Harris government, that they don’t by-pass the democratic decision-making structure of the union, and they don’t undermine the legitimacy of the union leadership. That doesn’t mean I think they’re a good thing.

    In my view, the employer’s power to force a ratification vote is–like so many other things in our labour relations regime–a pragmatic compromise. I wouldn’t want to see it used by employers repeatedly within a round of bargaining, because this would effectively remove from a bargaining committee a meaningful mandate to bargain, and that would make bargaining cumbersome and inefficient. As it happens, the employer’s power to force a ratification vote can only be used once in a given round of bargaining. It is a kind of wild card that the employer can use to go over the heads of the union leadership, which in some cases may be desirable or necessary. Of course, the one-time limit pressures the employer to make the best final offer possible.

    So, I’m not a “fan” of the employer’s power to force a ratification vote. But it’s not evil, either. The notion that it undermines the collective bargaining process is nonsense. On the contrary, it is one of many checks that help to ensure the collective bargaining process works as it should.

    In the case of York, my theory is that the union and the university are fighting the last battle: they’re both fighting this strike as if it was the 2000-2001 strike. The union’s strategy is (and probably always was) to push a strike into mid-January, which is the university’s known breaking point. The university’s strategy is to attempt to divide the union through a forced ratification vote, just like they did last time. The obvious move would be to sweeten the deal for unit 2 (contract faculty) and entice them to ratify, which would leave out on strike Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants–the workers who are the most radical and have the least lose in a prolonged strike, but whose labour is not necessary for the resumption of academic activity (this doesn’t mean the university could or would resume academic activity with only unit 2 ratifying, but unit 2 is 3903’s best leverage, so ratification by that unit could weaken the positions of unit 1 and unit 3).

    Now, because each side anticipates exactly what I’ve just written, each side also has its own 2008-2009 revision to the strategy. The union is now full steam ahead in its campaign to win a forced ratification vote with a decisive “no” vote in every unit. I assume they’re putting extra energy into the contract faculty, who they lost last time.

    The university’s revision is to be a hard-ass and not bargain away their budget during the strike, only to be pushed far beyond their bottom line when the breaking point is reached in January. This theory explains why the university is being so tough about calling for binding arbitration and keeping away from the table: they believe that they’ll be pushed to the breaking point in January no matter what, so why not at least save all the space they can to bargain then?

    The university might also change the strategy for forcing a ratification vote. Perhaps they will sweeten the deal and entice TWO units to ratify, thus isolating one unit that is left out. Perhaps they will focus their resources on winning ratification of contract faculty, then ignore the other two units for a while, rather than cave like they did last time.

    Another variable is the morale of rank-and-file union members. Given the public relations beating the union has been taking this time around, perhaps resolve to stay out in the January cold will have weakened in ALL units, leading to a complete victory for the university.

    I agree that the forced ratification vote will play a critical role in the bargaining. Either it will end the strike (because the workers will ratify), or the workers’ rejection of the offer will break the employer and force a flurry of last minute bargaining to permit classes to resume before January ends.

    Either way, this thing ends by mid- to late-January.

    By the way, I think your suggestion that the terms of a forced ratification vote are “fluid” and that the university might seek a vote during Christmas holidays is unrealistic, to say the least. First, because the terms of the vote ARE fixed, and they’re not dictated by the employer. The terms of the vote will be set by the Ministry of Labour. Second, because even if the employer could dictate the terms, it does not appear to be in the interests of the employer to rig the vote to take place during the holidays when turnout would be low. Low turnout always favours the union, because only the radical element shows up. It seems more likely that the university will wait until January, then request the forced ratification vote.

  15. If you believe that the “university is being so tough about calling for binding arbitration and keeping away from the table,” then why support a campaign for binding arbitration if it serves to prolong the strike?

    I think that the “hard-ass” employer should just make a fair offer, and end this dispute from going into January. By your own account the York admin will eventually have to propose a “sweet deal.”

  16. Jen,

    For two reasons.

    First, the students’ call for binding arbitration is grounded in different reasons than the university’s demand for binding arbitration (BA). The students were not supporting the university, they were asking for what they believed to be in their interests, independent of the interests of the university.

    The students weren’t playing hardball by asking for BA, rather, they were asking for the one thing they believed might end the strike before January, given both sides’ unwillingness to bargain in good faith. As we now know, this campaign failed, and the strike will run into January, causing all kinds of problems for undergrads.

    Second, the call for BA didn’t prolong the strike. The students, remember, were asking for BA forced through back-to-work legislation. Obviously, if this had succeeded, it would have significantly shortened the strike. This campaign had a possible up-side (shorten the strike) with no down-side, because nothing about it moved the union from its timetable or plan, which involves striking right into January, to push the university to its breaking point.

    The strike won’t go on any longer into January because back in November and December some students asked for back-to-work legislation. What happens in January will be determined by other factors, such as union member morale, the weather, the timing of the university’s forced vote move, and the content of the university’s final offer.

    Again, my theory is that the union intends (and always intended) to go on strike until mid-January, which is the university’s known breaking point, in order to squeeze more out of the university. In this scenario, neither side has any incentive to bargain during the early and middle period of the strike. If you accept this theory, it explains why neither side has made a serious effort to bargain, so far. It also predicts that the strike will be settled either by, or in the immediate wake of, a forced ratification vote in mid- to late-January.

    It isn’t true that the university could end the strike sooner by making a “fair offer.” First of all, in many people’s views, the current offer IS fair. Second, given the union’s strategy of pushing the university to its breaking point, nothing short of 100% satisfaction of union demands could possibly have ended the strike before January. The union will not accept offer (x) now, because they know that they need only wait until mid-January, at which point the offer becomes (x+10).

  17. “The current offer IS fair”… what offer are you talking about? Maybe you are referring to press release that reiterates York’s November 5th offer as bullet points. Please note that the November 5th offer expired, on November 5th. As it stands, there is no offer from the York employer, only an offer of binding arbitration.

    Even supposing that bullet points on a press release constitutes an offer, a majority students and faculty have already voted against it on November 5th. A quantitative majority of students and faculty in CUPE deemed it unfair.

    To suggest that students and faculty have a grand scheme to strike until January is unsubstantiated. It is a blurring of goals and tactics. The goal here is not to strike and “break” the university. Students and faculty don’t want a power play like you describe. The goal is to ratify a fair deal that contains no concessions. I invite all to come to the picketlines and talk to the students and faculty. Maybe it will help in developing less cynical assumptions, and provide an analysis of the union which is better informed and representative.

    Binding arbitration will not end this industrial dispute in a prompt and fair manner. What needs to happen is negotiations. The union has publicly called for a resumption of negotiations. The York admin should respond and stop playing games. Why prolong the strike? York admin should just offer the students and workers the deal which they intend to offer in late-January.

  18. Jen,

    We will have to take your word for it that the union is not pursuing a battle-tested strategy to “strike and win” by pushing the employer to its known breaking point in mid-January.

    By the way, anyone who wants to read the many documents detailing how CUPE 3903 struck and won in 2000-2001 can find these materials here:


  19. Or readers can take up my invite all to come to the picketlines and talk to the students and faculty directly. Cutting through spin and talking to people face to face is the best way to get a greater perspective on the strike. Joey, you should visit too.

    Plus it will lesson the antagonism that occurs when people are making cynical assumptions!

  20. Because the union is spining anything at all…

  21. Why complain about the strike?? Just support CUPE 3903 or else you will be in for a big treat in 2010.

  22. I thought that one of CUPE’s big goals was to get a 2 year contract now, so that they can AGAIN strike on 2010; which by the way, it’s no “big treat” at all for the students. So I think there are substantial reasons why students definitely should complain about this strike.

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