On Campus

Calls grow for back-to-work order in York strike

Toronto newspapers blame union for impasse, urge McGuinty government to step in

Montreal mayor Camillien Houde said that to lead people, you first had to know where they were going.

If the editorial boards of Toronto’s newspapers are any indication, public opinion—centre, left and right—has run out of patience, and wants an immediate end to the strike by teaching assistants, research assistants and sessional lecturers at York. Canada’s third-largest university has been shut down since November.

This morning, all four Toronto dailies called for the government to pass back-to-work legislation. The editorials sometimes invoked common images—metaphors like “held hostage;” reminders that a premier who called himself “the education premier” should be troubled by the inability of 50,000 university students to get an education—but there were subtle differences in the way each argued the case for government intervention, as well as whom they blamed for the impasse.

According to the Sun (headline: “McGuinty fiddles while York burns”), York students are victims of a “fraud”, which it says “has been perpetrated by labour and management at York, aided yesterday by Premier Dalton McGuinty.”

“It’s fraud because students are not getting the education they were promised and for which they paid, in advance, in good faith.” The Sun called on the government to “recall the legislature and pass back-to-work legislation.”

The Globe and Mail, surprisingly, delivers an editorial that is a blistering screed against the union. Whereas the Sun said students were victims of a fraud perpetrated by both sides, The Globe opens its editorial with the following: “In the midst of a recession, tens of thousands of young people looking to further their education are being held hostage by the country’s most well-paid teaching assistants, who are unwilling to accept a pay increase beyond what most workers expect in the current climate. The interests of organized labour have overtaken those of students. York University has now been shut down for 11 weeks only because of the needs of striking teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract workers.”

The Globe says that “the university’s initial offer of a 9.25 per cent pay hike over three years was reasonable; its revised offer, which tacked on additional benefits and wages, was better.” The Globe also notes that the union is trying to strengthen its hand in the future by pushing for a two-year deal (instead of past three year deals) that would expire in 2010, at the same time as many other collective bargaining agreements. “That strategy,” writes the Globe, “should be an incentive to Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario Premier, to draw his own line in the sand. Forced to wade into the dispute this week after months of steering clear, Mr. McGuinty appointed mediator Reg Pearson to “bang a few heads together.” But the time for mediation is over. To discourage CUPE from shutting down more campuses when it can, the Premier should heed the Opposition’s calls to promptly legislate an end to the strike.”

The Toronto Star prescribes the same medicine. “The province, which has stayed out of this dispute for too long, should intervene. Recalling the MPPs from their winter break and introducing back-to-work legislation, with binding arbitration to settle the dispute, is the only certain way to end this strike.” The Star also tilts its hand in favour of York’s administration, though it does not criticize the union quite as relentlessly as does the Globe. The Star writes that back-to-work legislation is necessary because “after six months of on-and-off negotiations, the union still wants a contract worth twice what the university says it can afford.” The implication being that it believes the union’s demands have not come down enough to meet York’s offer, rather than the other way around.

The National Post (headline: “A self-destructing university”), tilts more strongly against the union. “The strike reflects badly on the union, in particular. The 3,340 striking CUPE members rejected a pay and benefits increase of 10.7%, a reasonable offer at a time when tens of thousands of Canadians face pay cuts or lost jobs.” It notes that teaching assistants, research assistants and sessionals complaint about having to reapply for their jobs each year, but calls that “hardly justification for holding 50,000 students hostage.” The Post arrives at the same conclusion as the other three dailies, calling on McGuinty to introduce back-to-work legislation. “York has long suffered a reputation for extremist, flakey politics and labour relations fixed on ideology as much as working conditions. This strike exacerbates that image problem…. York needs to be saved from itself.”