Dozens of York University students descended on the Ontario legislature today to demand government intervention to end a nearly month-old strike by York’s teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty.
See also: Mediator suspends York talks
The strike, which began Nov. 6, has left 50,000 students out of class and concerned how they will be affected by the strike. As the dispute drags on, students are concerned about the school year extending into May and costing them summer employment opportunities.
The protest comes at a critical impasse in the dispute with the provincial mediator saying the two sides are not close to an agreement and less than two weeks before the provincial legislature recesses for a two-month winter break.
“We’re hoping to get the premier’s attention with this,” said York student Catherine Divaris, a member of the group YorkNotHostage.com, which organized today’s event. She spoke to CityNews while protesting in front of Queen’s Park.
“We need the legislature to enact back-to-work legislation for this strike because it’s entering the fourth week now and there’s been no action from either side… this is unacceptable.”
The government has refuted demands for back-to-work legislation but an opposition member, Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman (Thornhill) introduced a private member’s bill to force an end to the strike.
Bill 135, Back to Work Act (York University), 2008 calls, “on the Minister of Labour to table back-to-work legislation.” Shurman told the legislative assembly, that if passed, it will impose a three-year contract on the union.
One of the key demands of CUPE 3903 is a two-year contract. Provincially, CUPE is preparing for a possible provincial-wide strike in 2010 to push demands for more government funding to increase pay and benefits for CUPE members at Ontario’s public universities.
“This government can no longer stand by as CUPE 3903 continues to blatantly disregard the consequences of their irresponsible strike. I’ve asked the McGuinty government to step in and show decisive leadership on this issue, but time is running out and they’ve done nothing,” Shurman said after Question Period today.
“When will the McGuinty Liberals realize that the ‘wait and see’ approach is not the way to govern? It didn’t work for the economy and it isn’t working for York U. students,” .
The bill reflects the position of the Progressive Conservative opposition but is opposed by both the Liberals and NDP. It is unlikely to be passed into law.
Rosario Marchese, NDP critic for Training, Colleges, and Universities say the root cause of the current strike is government underfunding. “We languish at number 10 in per capita funding,” he notes of Ontario’s last place status in Confederation for per-student funding of universities.
Marchese says this has resulted in situations like York where “the workers who do 50 per cent of the teaching are only paid 7.5% of York’s operating budget.” He say is not far that contract faculty are being used by universities to balance budgets in light of government underfunding.
He says the government has caused the problem and needs to provide funding to fix it.
Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities John Milloy stated he is continuing to “call on both sides to put the interests of the students [at York University] … front and centre and come back to the negotiating table and reach an agreement.”
The union says the university has money to meet its demands and return students to the classroom.
“Hiding behind the current economic recession is downright deceptive,” CUPE 3903 member Katherine Nastovski said in a statement released by the union. “They’re obviously putting the classroom at the bottom of their priorities, so we want to know where the fees paid by hardworking parents and students, tax dollars and public fundraising are going.”
CUPE 3903 points to York recently successful fundraising campaign “York to the Power of 50” which has raised over $167-million of its $200-million goal as a potential source of funds to pay for a settlement.
The York Federation of Students, in their first news release since the strike began, seconded the calls of CUPE 3903 calling on the “York University Administration to immediately allocate a portion of the more than $160 million raised in the “York to the Power of 50″ fundraising campaign in order to end the strike.”
“The York Administration has repeatedly stated that there is no money to meet the demands of CUPE 3903,” wrote Hamid Osman, YFS president in the statement. “We understand the need to celebrate the University’s 50th anniversary, but during these tough times it’s more important to get 50,000 undergraduate students back into the classroom.”
Neither side appears to be changing its position and no talks are presently scheduled for this week.
The Ontario legislature recess for their winter break next Friday, Dec. 11 and is not scheduled to sit again until Feb. 17, 2009.
– photo courtesy of Gavan Watson