On Campus

What you probably don't know about the York strike

Three rarely-talked-about facts make this strike unique

I was interviewed by a writer for the National Post today for my views on the strike at York, and the threat of other actions elsewhere. I’ll link to the story when it appears (here it is now – they spelled my name wrong) but for now I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve had in connection with the strike. Some ideas came together for the interview that I hadn’t previously sorted out.

For complete OnCampus coverage of the York University strike, click here

I’ve said before that many people don’t understand what’s going on with this strike. I won’t claim I’ve got a monopoly on understanding it, but I do firmly believe it’s a unique kind of strike. It exists on the boundary between labour law and politics, and educational policy and politics. It can’t really be understood from only one of those two perspectives. I’ll illustrate why with a view to three key issues.

Issue One – It’s About the Cost of Education

Viewed only as a labour action you’d certainly tend to think this strike is about compensation for work, wouldn’t you? Not for all the graduate students on strike, it isn’t. This strike includes teaching assistants, research assistants, and contract faculty all in the same bargaining unit. With the exception of the last group, they’re almost all graduate students. These aren’t ordinary workers on strike. These are students in their own right. And they have all the same concerns common to all students, including the cost of their education.

The real cost of education isn’t only tuition. It includes however much it costs to live and support oneself while learning. This is an entirely uncontroversial claim, I hope. Every funding model I’ve ever seen takes into account cost of living, so I’ll assume we can agree on this much.

The pay that graduate students receive for their work as TAs and RAs is part of their funding package for school. These jobs come as part of the support that is guaranteed to every graduate student. The wage they receive, by the hour, isn’t remotely about the real value of the work they do. It’s just an indirect way of defraying the cost of graduate education.

Graduate students in their 20s-30s are living on about $14k/year, after the cost of tuition, books, etc. They almost certainly are, in many cases, assuming additional debt in order to get through their graduate degrees, or else living in poverty to avoid that. I’m not out to promote a position on whether this is a reasonable circumstance or not, because I appreciate it’s a controversial question. But it’s very important to understand that to graduate students this is the issue – how much it costs them to go to school.

So issue one is that this is a cost-of-education strike disguised as a labour action. And undergraduates, screwed by this as they may be, might pause to appreciate the elegance of the move. If undergrads could somehow get away with striking under the Labour Relations Act, in order to lessen the costs of their education, I do imagine they’d jump at the chance.

Issue Two – The Dangers of a Casual Workforce

For all those inclined to look at this through an educational lens, it’s important to realize the casualization of labour is happening all around. It’s sometimes characterized as a “flexible workforce,” for those who want to make it sound good. But under any terminology, it’s about moving work towards a lower cost and lower maintenance workforce that can be easily disposed of.

There are real dangers associated with this, however, and York is now feeling the effects of this head on. The staff and students who are on strike feel no long-term investment in York or commitment to its success. The York “brand” is taking a shit-kicking in this strike (to use the technical term for it) but most of the people on strike have no reason to care. The grad students will all move on in a few years and most of the instructors on strike, as has been noted, have a short-term investment in their jobs. Note that in the forced vote that just occurred, support for the continued strike was lowest among instructors. I’d bet, if the information could be isolated, that long-term instructors who have the reasonable expectation of a continuing relationship with York (even lacking any guarantee of one) support the strike less than anyone. They’ll still be around to clean up the mess and to live with the consequences, long after everyone else has moved on.

So this is issue two. The more universities rely on a casual workforce with no investment in the long-term health of the institution, the more they will be vulnerable to bitter and destructive labour actions. You can blame CUPE for this, and fairly point out that they don’t seem to care about what they are doing to York and to York’s students. But you can also blame York itself, for increasingly moving the bulk of instructor duties into the hands of people who have no real reason to care.

Issue Three – Saturation of the PhD Market

One of the points that’s been oft-repeated during this strike is that we’re talking about future PhDs and professors, and it’s awfully hard to rouse sympathy for the plight of these very privileged people. After all, it’s a case of “short-term pain for long-term gain” as someone put it lately, and even if graduate students live in poverty during their studies, they will surely reap the benefits in the future. Similarly, contract instruction can be seen as simply a period of unstable employment before PhD grads find better and more stable positions.

Well, that’s just not true anymore. Ask any university professor and they’ll give you the low down. Some decades ago, newly minted PhDs were getting recruited like nobody’s business. Just like computer programmers back before the tech market went bust, almost anyone qualified could walk into a good job. These days, the employment pickings are slim indeed. And so PhD students and recent grads aren’t willing to accept the “short-term pain for long-term gain” argument. It’s simply not plausible any more.

Now as many folks have pointed out, things are rough all around. There’s an obvious shortage of guarantees out there on the job market and there’s no special reason why PhD grads should be the exception. But in this case they do have at least one good reason to feel especially bitter about it. And that is that the oversupply of qualified workers, in this case, is being created by the very employers who then turn around and offer them only poorly-paid (in relative terms) short-term jobs with no benefits and few prospects.

Remember that universities are simultaneously the producers of PhD grads and are also, in many fields, the only real employment market for them. Some graduates in more applied fields have the opportunity to go to work for private employers, and they aren’t quite a captive workforce in the same way, but in many fields it’s barely an option at all.

I can’t imagine any solution for this problem. The academic marketplace is so small that it’s effectively a global concern. Even if Canada were to put strict limitations on the number of PhD slots available, it would make no real difference. But on a general level, “The Academy” (meaning the whole university establishment) has become irresponsible about the production of PhDs.

So issue three is that the employment market for professional academics is completely unlike any other. I can’t think of any other situation where a small cabal of employers has both a monopoly on the availability of work and also a monopoly on the production of qualified employees. If you were an employer in that situation, wouldn’t you be motivated to create an over-supply in the qualified workforce, or at least unconcerned about doing so? I know I would.


I’ve been trying hard not to pick sides in this strike. The truth is, I’m conflicted on any number of levels about what’s “right” here. But I do know it’s important to understand this strike, as best we can, and it can’t only be grasped from the perspective of either labour politics or educational politics. It’s a complicated amalgam of the two, and all the more challenging for that reason.

The uncomfortable punch line to all of this is the following. Absolutely none of the factors that I’ve cited are unique to York. It’s true all around that graduate students are poorly funded. They get enough to survive but not much more. It’s true all around that universities are increasingly reliant on casual workforces that have little or no long-term investment in the success and stability of their employers. They aren’t necessarily out to cause trouble, but when push comes to shove they have no particular reason to play nice. And it’s true all around that the job market for academics and PhD grads is quite bad. It’s not great for everyone else either, but then at least other workers are spared the feeling that their own institutions are complicit in creating the problem.

I leave you with those cheery thoughts. The problems are widespread and rooted in our institutional structures. I don’t know how to solve them, so I can only hope that wiser heads than mine are working on this. Because I do know for sure we aren’t going to find solutions if we continue to hang this situation either on the militancy of CUPE 3903 or on the stupidity of the York administration. It goes much, much deeper than that.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.