When contract faculty and teaching assistants went on strike at York University in November, most students had their classes abruptly cancelled. Most—but not all. It turns out that while the Toronto university was willing to disrupt the programs of graduate and undergraduate students pursuing everything from arts to engineering, when it came to the more lucrative business and law schools, the students come first.
About 50,000 York students have been growing increasingly upset at the possibility of losing a year of studies due to the strike. But M.B.A. students in York’s Schulich School of Business and law students at Osgoode Hall Law School—who pay at least three times the average undergraduate tuition fees—have been attending classes, strike or no strike. The university has also deemed that graduating nursing students and international undergraduate exchange business students—who pay three times more than Canadian undergrads—are too important to be inconvenienced. “Students are frustrated that they’re seeing their friends at Schulich and Osgoode going back to class,” says Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students. “They’re wondering, ‘Why isn’t that me?’ ”
Alex Bilyk, a spokesman for the university, told Maclean’s that York has a number of reasons to justify cancelling classes for some students, but not others. First, he says, there are few contract faculty and teaching assistants in the law and business schools who belong to the striking local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). However, according to Jennifer Micallef, a third-year Osgoode student and student caucus member, lots of students in those schools are taught by union members. “All of Osgoode’s 300 first-year students are taught at least one class by a CUPE member, and now they are being told that they have no idea when these classes will resume,” she says.
The second reason York has exempted the business and law programs, says Bilyk, is that students in those schools have certain hard deadlines that are difficult to work around. “In these cases we had no control of that calendar,” he says. “We would not be able to remediate those programs.”
Yet students in other faculties point out that many streams of study have deadlines to meet. It’s true that graduating law students need to article, but why is that more important than, say, an internship for an engineering student? Some note as well that some of those fixed dates for law and business students are more flexible than they appear. Law students, for example, can write their bar admission exams in November or March rather than June.
Meanwhile, the international exchange students at Schulich continue to enjoy classes, while foreign students in other programs sit at home. “I’ve had calls from parents in Dubai, Venezuela, Mexico and the Caribbean wondering when to book a flight for their kids,” admits Bilyk.
Some professors in the law and business schools are also angry. They’re upset that faculty in other schools can support striking workers by refusing to cross picket lines, while professors in the law and business schools have to work. “A picket line represents a call for solidarity,” says one Osgoode professor. “There are many of us who feel that crossing a picket line to teach is a very unappealing thing to have to do.”
The striking local itself is particularly unimpressed by the situation. “Basically they are trying to undermine the one strength we have as a union, which is to withdraw our labour,” says Tyler Shipley, a spokesman for the more than 3,000 members of CUPE 3903. “It really was a slap in the face.”
But despite the complaints from faculty and strikers, it’s still the students who are suffering the most. Earlier this week, the union membership voted to reject York’s latest offer, which included a 9.25 per cent pay hike over three years, so there’s still no end in sight. If the provincial government doesn’t order the strikers back to work, it’s likely that York’s students won’t finish the current year until well into the summer, at best. Unless, of course, they happen to be budding lawyers or financiers.