York U strike is a power struggle, not about wages - Macleans.ca

York U strike is a power struggle, not about wages

CUPE and Ontario universities face off. Students suffer the consequences.


Students at York University should expect a long strike, as both sides have a lot to lose if the other side gets what it wants in the single issue that actually matters in this dispute: the length of the contract.

See also: 2008 York University strike is CUPE’s Waterloo

See also: Ont. dismisses combined bargaining for university unions

See also: GO Transit refunds for York students?

CUPE 3903, which represents 3,400 contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at the university, wants a two-year contract. The Canadian Union of Public Employees is attempting to negotiate a contract end date of 2010 at all universities, where it has members in Ontario.

The reason for this is simple. The union’s hand is stronger if it’s able to shutdown every university in Ontario than if it’s trying to negotiate dozens of different contracts with various colleges and universities. The union also has dreams of proving its relevance by having what would amount to a general strike.

The union’s dream is the nightmare of university administrations across the province. This strike is not really about York University. This strike is about CUPE and the Council of Ontario Universities. It is a struggle for control of the universities themselves.

Neither side, from their perspective, can afford to give ground in this struggle.

CUPE needs to be able shut down York University in 2010 for its plan to work. The COU needs to prevent CUPE from being able to shut down Ontario’s universities if it hopes to avoid a mass disruption in 2010 that will damage the inter-provincial and international reputations of Ontario’s higher education brand.

This strike is not about wages, benefits, or job security. The only issue is what happens in 2010, and the rest of the rhetoric is just smoke and mirrors.

As for students, you might want to prepare for exams in the new year and regret buying your transit pass for the month.


York U strike is a power struggle, not about wages

  1. Pingback: It’s on, but what’s at stake? « Osgoode Labour & Employment Law Society

  2. Mr. Coleman,

    As a former student of McMaster, which I understand you attend, as a Youth Community Relations Officer for Elections Canada in the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough Westdale riding during this last election, which you completely trashed, for lack of a better word, and as a current PhD student and TA at York University, I regret that you feel the need to make your useless thoughts heard on a topic you know nothing of. As a graduate student who makes approximately $16,000, of which $5,400 goes toward tuition (and of course the mainstream does not reports this!), I can assure you, and others, that this is about wages and the fact that many TA’s live well below the standard of living in a city that is very expensive to live in. I say this as resident of Hamilton who commutes to school because I cannot afford to live in Toronto on my salary. This strike is also about tuition, because we continue to pay full tutition fees in spite of the fact that we no longer take courses after our first year in the PhD program, and very often, do not even use the York University facilities. Essentially, I pay $5,400 to take books out from the York library, which I could do for free as a McMaster graduate. Finally, this strike is about job security, because we have contract faculty who have worked at York for years, but still have to reapply for jobs every single year, without knowing when or what they will be teaching next. This strike talk is not just empty “rhetoric”, it is about a variety of issues, not simply a 2 year agreement, and in all honesty, I do have many fellow TA’s who would prefer to not strike at all. However, things are not helped by enterprising “journalists” such as yourself who I am sure are far removed from the topic in the first place. Why not leave your analyses to matters that pertain to McMaster University, you did an excellent job of that during the election (sarcasm).

  3. I am well versed in the over-arching themes of CUPE university labour negotiations. I’m well aware that CUPE wishes to synchronize their contracts and have province-wide negotiations. This is the primary goal of the union.

    In terms of your role with Elections Canada, I stand by my opinion; your boss did a poor job of reaching out to youth voters. The outreach to the student population was extremely poor. Setting up a table in the student centre does not cut it these days. Having a returning office that students cannot access is unacceptable. In a riding with a large urban area, there is no excuse for being far from the populations centres.

    I did not completely dismiss the compensation issues, I noted they are not the main issue. I’m confident the university will move on those issues and that the union will has well. I doubt neither side is prepared to move on the length of contract.

    Also, please make note of my recent post on how this effects GO Transit. You can get a refund on your monthly pass and instead get a 10 ride pass and save money. Best of luck and I hope the dispute is settled quickly.

    – Joey

  4. First, I’d like to apologize regarding the hastiness of my comment, I’m sure you are well versed in the ins and outs of CUPE matters.

    I understand where you’re coming from, and yes, a 2 year agreement is important. I just wanted to articulate that there are many issues on the bargaining table which are equally important as well, particularly from the perspective of “regular TA’s,” not Union stewards, who really would just like to be able to pay their rent and tuition.

    As far as the election went, please keep in mind that in addition to McMaster, our riding also had to deal with students at Redeemer, as well as 5 high schools in the riding with 18 year olds that were eligible to vote. We did try as hard as possible to get the word out there to students living in residence, who were the ones that could actually vote on campus. Please also keep in mind as well, that I did contact Hamilton Centre, I invited their CRO to come to McMaster’s voting information booths, but their Returning Officer did not even take down my information. I was also informed by him that he was not even going to focus on Mohawk, because it was “not worth it!” Furthermore, when I contacted the HWCDSB to speak to their schools in the riding, I was asked by their superintendent if anyone would be covering the other schools, and when I contacted Hamilton Centre, I was informed by the Returning Officer, that there was no point going into high schools because those students cannot even vote. It was a bit disconcerning to hear all of this as a student myself, and then to read your article, when my supervisor was actually a high school teacher himself and wanted me to get the word out to those students.

    As far as location goes, and I believe you did speak to him about this, I agree that the location was a bit “out there”, but by nature of the riding, Anc-Dun-Flam-West., it is really difficult to find an abundance of available locations on short notice in a high traffic, easily accessible area.

    I’ll leave it as that, as I’m sure you have more important things to do, such as study, than respond to my comment…best of luck!

  5. What about us, the students. If you want better pay…get another job, like normal people. This strike is affecting other peoples education, CUPE is only looking after its own matter without any consideration for others.

  6. I’m not sure who exactly you are referring to, but if you bothered to read my message, I do currently have 2 jobs, and had a 3rd during the weeks that the election was occurring, all while doing my PhD and studying for comprehensive exams, which are this weekend. I also know many other TA’s that have more than 1 job. Do you really think that all of us want this and think this is convenient? I did mention that some of my fellow TA’s DO NOT want a strike. You have to keep in mind that there are many contract faculty and TA’s with a wide range of opinions on this, the opinion of Union representatives are not necessarily the opinion of everyone else.
    I can see that your comment is very well thought out.

  7. I find the “we live below the standard of living” (sometimes phrased as “we live below the poverty line”) argument a little hard to swallow for the main reason that you are, first and foremost, students yourselves. The fact is that unfortunately, most students live below the standard of living of the average working person. This is both reasonable and expected – because we spend the majority of our time studying, rather than working.

    TAs who are making 16K a year working 10-20 hours a week should not be comparing themselves to individuals earning close to the poverty line. These people are earning 21K before taxes, for 40 full-time hours per week.

    Finally, if you’re making 16K a year, and paying 6000 in tuition, I would say that you are in better shape than most other students, who depend on OSAP and student loans for the bulk of their living expenses. As students, you are not reasonably expected to live off the difference between your part-time salary and your tuition. Most don’t.

  8. I completely agree with AS. As TAs, you say you make 16K over the school year and need to pay for tuition, books, living expenses, etc. During your summer, I’m sure you have another job or two and make AT LEAST $6000, totalling about 21K for your year. As an undergrad, I work during the summer, make about $7000-$9000 (depending on the job and pay), and make maybe $1500-$2000 during the school year. I find it a little ridiculous to hear the union complain that 16K isn’t enough for a part-time job during the school year, when I don’t make that all year, working full-time for 4 months of it. Maybe us students should go on strike to lower tuition. Oh wait, you all still make money and don’t care about the students as long as you get paid.

  9. Being a TA is a PART-TIME JOB. It is NOT designed to be a primary source of income. Let’s talk when you are working 40 hours/week. And you know what? No other student part-time job that I know of pays $30/hour AND has a benefits package, making your hourly compensation over $60/hour and your annualised compensation package worth well over $100,000. If everyone else seems to manage at jobs paying $10-15/hour, then $30/hour+benefits is more than generous. York should actually be taking money away from you.

  10. As a graduate student (not from York, or any Ontario university for that matter) I think in large part the criticism of CUPE 3903 originates in the fact that most people do not fundamentally understand what it is that graduate students do. Let me first say that graduate studies are nothing like undergraduate studies. You do not attend class, take notes, and then go home to prepare for exams and finish assignments. Instead graduate students work long hours in laboratories, at field sites and in libraries (far more than the standard work week) working on research projects that are directly tied to the larger research goals of their respective departments, corporate sponsors, government directives, and the universities at large. This is work that takes place all throughout the year (no summers off to make extra money, as some have suggested).

    The compensation graduate students receive in the form of scholarships and TA wages are not simply a wage for 10 hours of work a week in your labs/tutorials. And by the way, in 5 years of graduate school I do not know a single individual who has not worked hours far beyond those required by the contract because frankly, like all educators, we continually sacrifice our own interests (time with families, social outings, etc…) for the welfare of our students. Undergraduate students and the public in general need to be made aware that graduate students provide incredibly valuable labour to the University as researchers. Behind every medical breakthrough at a university, each new bacteria resistant strain of grain developed, each engineering breakthrough that improves the effectiveness of mammograms, each work of history that challenges our preconceptions of the world, etc…, there are graduate students that make it possible. If universities were forced to pay for this labour at real market wages, instead of the artificially low levels of compensation given to graduate students, there would be either significantly less research produced at our universities, or the costs of running the universities would rise dramatically. In effect, each graduate student donates tens of thousands of dollars worth of labour, per year, to our universities, corporate research sponsors, government and society at large. To paraphrase the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Manitoba, graduate students are the ‘army of researchers’ which make it possible for universities to act as a center of innovation and research in our society. Graduate students are not ‘just students,’ they are highly educated professionals doing innovative and infinitely important research for very little material compensation.

    Perhaps if people understood what graduate students do they would understand why it is reasonable for them to ask for poverty line compensation (though on a personal level i think it is atrocious that anyone should have to justify not wanting to live in poverty). For those inside the ivory towers it is common knowledge that graduate students are exploited for their mental and physical labour – though this is often justified by some professors, administrators and even students by claiming a long tradition of graduate student exploitation. It would seem to me that if Joey’s thesis about a large clash in 2010 between graduate students and the government is correct, then CUPE and the other bodies who represent grad students (student unions and CFS) need to make a serious effort to educate the public on the value of graduate students to our universities.

  11. Yes, TA’ing is a PART-TIME job, nobody is denying that. However, as Matt articulated, TA’s are also full time students, who do not have to do coursework, but do have responsibilities in terms of research and writing.
    You cannot compare the salary of an an undergraduate to that of a graduate student because the roles and expectations are entirely different. Realistically, undergraduates are not expected, on a regular basis, to research, write, apply for funding (which can sometimes be a job in itself), attend and work in conferences (sometimes out of their own pocket), and the like. I was an undergraduate, and I too paid my way through school by working, without loans and without privileges. However, many undergraduates do you know that have families and children to support? The average age of a graduate student in Canada is 31 years old, and by that age, most students live on their own with their own families to support, and are in greater need of a package that combines decent wages with benefits.
    To suggest that TA’s “do not care” about their students is ridiculous. Yes, there are some “bad” TA’s out there, and that is completely unfortunate. However, there are many who genuinely care about their students, school related issues or not, and there are many who would fully support a “strike” to lower undergraduate tuition fees, because they are too high! However, I feel that I can say this because I’ve actually been there. Please don’t judge unless you’ve actually walked in the shoes of a graduate student. I am well aware that the larger perception is that graduate students are a rather privileged bunch because of the sheer nature of the fact that we continue to go to school at an age when everyone else is working a “full-time” job, but I can assure you, it is not without sacrifice. That being said, this is not just about money, but rather a combination of factors that yes, do include a SMALL wage increase, but also include benefits, job security, hopefully the reduction of tuition fees and as Joey mentioned, a 2 year agreement. That being said, I too may have expressed concern about a strike when I was an undergraduate student, but if any of you ever opt for graduate school in the future, I can guarantee you will feel differently.

  12. You need to realise that there are many different types of “students” out there. Agreeing with what DC and Matt have mentioned above, undergraduate students are not that same as graduate students.

    Further, the work that TAs/RAs and contract faculty do are not the same as other part-time work you’re lumping your educators in with. Granted, we do not work 40-hour weeks. But we’re educating you. We’re attending your lectures, leading your tutorials, marking your work week after week, and answering your questions at weird hours of the day.

    So please, realise that the value of this “part-time work” is much higher than manning the desk at an information booth, customer service at the bookstore, or bartending.

  13. So if you don’t take courses (as both of you say) then why do we have all these “graduate level” courses?

    Or are you just trying to push forward your own agenda by disregarding facts which would affect it (i.e. not all grad students are TAs, not all TAs are grad students, not all grad students do research)?

  14. I suggest that this article be removed, its just a ridiculous theory.

  15. TO Danny V: in first two years only of PhD there are courses

  16. To answer Danny, “graduate level courses” are taken at the masters level (almost certainly) and there are usually one or two years of course work at the beginning of a PhD program, after which students are doing independent study and research.

    Your question (not that there was anything wrong with it) reveals a natural problem in this discussion. Most undergraduates know nothing about the working conditions of graduate students. Without taking sides in this debate, I can at least assert it’s not reasonable to equate their situation with undergraduate study. It really is a different world, and a whole different set of assumptions.

  17. @Josh

    How is it ridiculous?


    Thanks for the comment


    One of the problems I’m seeing here is the strong divide between graduate and undergraduate students at most Ontario campuses. When I attended UManitoba as a first-year undergraduate, I interacted with graduate students in social settings. Grad students were part of the college councils, they were in the same students’ union, part of the political clubs, and were equals outside of the classroom. There were a few of my TAs that prior to ending up in their section, I didn’t even know were graduate students. I counted many grad students as friends.

    In Ontario, my experience as been that graduate and undergrads do not interact outside of the TA / undergrad relationship. This divide makes it easy for undergraduates to see graduate students in a neutral to non-positive light.

  18. “Grad level classes” are required at the start of masters level and PhD programs. Generally, a half or much more than a half of a grad student’s time is spent researching independently, not in classes. It would be difficult to contribute original research if we just took classes and replicated professor’s theories in papers, as undergrad studies can be like, and rightly so. Just a heads up for any undergrads thinking about grad school. One doesn’t just move on up into more difficult classes.

    Why should undergrads care? Why is this strike about you?

    Well, if you like small tutorials for one, this strike is about that. If you want diverse (as in multicultural etc.) folks for TAs, this strike is about that. If you want TAs who know what they are doing, it is about that too. And, if you ever want to go on to grad studies…guess what, this strike will effect that too!

    Since 2005, York’s grad population has increased 28%. Imagine that. Do the math. Think on that. What does that mean? Why is the university doing this? Because they just love grad students so much, they want more of them? For most faculties, they have 28% more grad students (or more), and yet they have not been able to higher more faculty to take care of these new grad students. Obviously, then, the entrance of new grad students is not as stringent as it once was. And, the University is capitalizing on the governments offer to give them more money for every new grad student. So, York is making lots of money on this influx of new grad students. The more they take in, the more they get. The faculty hate this, the new grad students hate this. Forget that soon Ontario will be flooded with PhDs without jobs for them, forget that the new TAs might not be Ontario’s brightest, but note that there has been no provisions for CUPE to handle this new influx of grad students.

    I mean, how is a union supposed to provide for the 28% increase with the funds they were getting in 2005?

    It’s like this folks: York has offered the Union a contract that is worse than the previous one offered. What exactly were they thinking, and, why have they waited to the last minute, the day before our strike which we gave notice of weeks and weeks ago? I mean, the propaganda is totally outrageous here. They post fake numbers, 9.25%, and pretend they mean something. They say words like “binding arbitration” and think that this is something people should be happy about. I mean, it is as bad as watching McCain and Obama pretend they have a clue about what the hell is going on with the economy. You know what, it just makes me, an A+ grad student, search for other places to go. The brightest want out of Ontario thanks, no one is happy with York. It’s a new institution with an administration that cannot handle the number of students it has. My wife just got rejected from a program she never applied to. I never know how much or when I am going to be paid for the work I do for the University. It is so much more than the numbers and words pundits are pushing around.

    Maybe this is a conspiracy for 2010. But let me tell you, S*** is F^^^^^ up right now. When we do have classes, imagine being a PhD in a class of 20 students?! What the F*** is going on Ontario? I can’t find a single professor who could tell you the names of the grad students in our department.


    So, to conclude, nothing is more f’ed than the university making us pay to be in school when we are “post-residents” i.e. finished with our minimal class work. Because the profs who sponsor out independent work don’t get anything for doing so, so, where does that tuition money go when we pay? In order to be TAs, we must be students. Our contracts actually prevent us from taking other jobs if you can believe it. So, we are in a sense, forced to live on what they give us, or go thousands and thousands into debt? Sound like those folks down south much? 80,000 in debt is a problem folks, not a solution.

  19. Honestly, I’m sure that every undergrad student right now is grateful for the little break after a month of grueling midterms. I’m just hoping that this doesn’t last too long because it would be a major inconvenience the rest of us who want to carry out a normal school year without having to make up extra time in the winter. afterall, the last strike lasted some 70 odd days and the semester had to be extended up until june…that means a great delay in when us students can get summer jobs and decrease the money that we depend on to pay for tution. I believe that it is important to fight for what you believe in, but not to the point where many others are severley affected, that just seems unfair.

    Hopefully an agreement can be made within a reasonable time frame.

  20. Matt makes it seem as though he is volunteering to be a graduate student. Guess what, you are getting your Master’s or PhD at the end of it. You are a student and your research is part of your training. If everyone could come out of undergrad and be a PI in their own lab graduate schools wouldn’t exist. You are getting the skills and experience needed to get a real job when you’re done, so don’t pretend that graduate students selflessly devote themselves to their universities, professors and students without reward.

    Medical students in Ontario pay up to $40000 a year in school-related expenses, work up to 80 hours a week in hospitals (not including study time at home), get a max of $13500 in OSAP and only in their last year do they get a “stipend” of $500 a month. But guess what, while much of this is service-oriented, each and everyone needs that as part of their training; they benefit from it.

    You are a graduate STUDENT. If, when you are finished your TRAINING and have a permanent, full-time job, and still make $17000 a year, then you can complain.

  21. Matt has made an wonderfully clear explanation of the nature and value of graduate work to the government, industry and society.

    To respond to Socks
    You are correct that gradate students are in training, however that could be said of anyone in an organization. All junior staffers are in training to take on greater responsibilities within their organization or industry. To take a media example, the junior reporter is in training to be the bureau chief and yet one does not expect him/her to work at a salary below the standard of living. I think part of the problem has to do with the perception of the value of graduate work. A friend who works in the media was making $30,000 in her first year while she learned how to run a teleprompter, made phone calls and watched “the wires”. She occasionally had a chance to leave the office with a news crew. If she had a chance to write copy it would be reviewed and corrected by the producer on the desk. In that first year she was also learning valuable lessons about the organization’s culture and its standards as well as honing her skills. Should the company have paid her $17,000 and taken $5,000 for her training because in the end she will be a better journalist? She has had a significant promotion and a pay increase to match. Should she pay her employer for greater responsibilities and the ability to climb the organizational ladder? The thought is ludicrous. Let’s return to the discussion of graduate work. Graduate students are in training, but they also provide invaluable service to the scholarly community. In addition, the graduate period is often when most scholars develop new theories (please forgive me for name dropping Einstein). It should be a period of innovation and learning not one in which junior scholars are so overwhelmed by financial concerns that they forgo attending conferences and talks because they simply cannot afford them (either in cash or in time).York’s TA’s are requesting a wage and benefits package not simply for 10 hours of teaching and marking but one that allows them to conduct their scholarly pursuits. Otherwise we reduce scholarship and research to a luxury that only a few members of our society could afford. The innovation on which North America prides itself is undergirded by research. Much of this is provided by graduate students . A real job is conventionally thought of as one which brings money to the economy. Graduate work is a real job.

    Finally, let’s not forget that this is not only about graduate students. Contract faculty are involved in this strike too. They are people with real children, real mortgages and real job INSECURITY at York. This strike is equally about that.

  22. I want to quickly add to Matt and DG’s comments.

    TA work is part (often the main part) of funding packages for graduate students that exist in every research-intensive university. In fact, these universities use funding packages as one mean to “compete” in attracting the best graduate students.

    The goal of this funding, as it was already explained, is to ensure graduate students can dedicate the greater part of their time to their research. Some might be surprised by Matt’s comments about an “army of graduate students”, but this is certainly the reality of large research labs in the natural sciences. In these labs the PI acts as a resource group “manager”: overseeing postdocs / grad students / undergrad interns, filing grant applications, etc.

    It is in the advantage of the university that graduate students do full-time research work after their coursework is done (after 1 year of the Master’s or 2 years of the Ph.D, approximately). Working part-time outside the university can delay the student’s graduation, which causes extra costs to the university.

    With reference to DG’s last comment, there are also a large number of graduate students who have children and need to balance their studies, work and family.

  23. We upgraded the commenting system on Friday and the comments on this post reopened.

    For the sake of maintaining an understandable conversation about the York University strike, I've closed comments on this post and am directing comments to this post on the CUPE strike: York U strike is CUPE's Waterloo.