By Cynthia Loch-Drake, Course Instructor at the Schulich School of Business
It’s High Noon in the Canadian university sector and the showdown is at York University. CUPE 3903, the strongest union representing precariously employed contract faculty, is confronting the most corporate-heavy Board of Governors running any university in the country (see Prof. Agnes Whitfield’s open letter). Job security continues to be the central issue after York’s administration lost a forced ratification vote April 9 and still refuses to bargain. This union local is targeted because it has wrested measures that give long-term contract faculty some job security, particularly a shot at being converted to permanent full-time tenure-track professors. This was a major win in the 2015 strike. York’s administration is determined to roll back this opportunity. That would be a serious setback for Canada’s university sector.
CUPE 3903’s achievements make it a beacon for contract faculty like myself throughout the country who have even less job stability and financial security. Through remarkable levels of resistance, including numerous strikes, its membership has also secured benefits, a pension, and a variety of funds for childcare costs, attending conferences etc. to give contract faculty a little more financial stability. If your goal is to hold back the demands of contract faculty in Canada then you need to crush this union.
The outcome of the ongoing showdown will greatly affect me and the students I teach, even though this year I’m not a member of the union. I have taught on contract in three different York faculties (as well as Brock University), but Schulich School of Business, where I am currently teaching, is one of the few areas of campus where contract faculty have never been organized.
I love teaching undergraduate students at York University, but without union membership I have much less ability to protect the learning conditions in my classroom, for example by limiting class size (which can be specified in a union contract). When I began teaching as contract faculty at the business school in 2009 the class size for my course was set at 30 students. A few years later the administration decided to increase it to 40 students without any increase in the amount the contract paid. I wrote letters explaining how this would impact the learning environment, but to no avail. Students in the larger classrooms lose out because it’s harder for them to participate in class discussions and I cannot give as much feedback on assignments or be as available to them. Yet these students are paying more than their predecessors.
Despite union membership, contract faculty status means low pay and constantly applying for jobs. Some say CUPE 3903 members shouldn’t complain because they have the best contract in the country, but at $8,300 per 4-month contract they earn only $300 more than the next highest paying contract in the country, and many universities pay much less. Since most of us are unable to get full-time work our average annual income is much lower than what permanent, full-time, tenure-track professors earn. This is the reality even though we also must complete many years of doctoral education and training, not to mention the unpaid work of getting published. We are cheap labour in the university system.
Private corporate interests are bending this important Canadian university to goals of cost efficiency and undemocratic control, posing an enormous threat to the wellbeing of York students, faculty, and staff, and the university sector more generally.
CUPE 3903 has been a bulwark against these pressures. It’s no wonder York University’s Board of Governors is so determined to crush this union.
By Aherthy Jeyasundaram, student at the Schulich School of Business
My favourite space at York University is Vari Hall. If you walk into it today you will see a large banner on one wall stating “Decolonize Your Education” and the adjacent wall is lined with a dozen red dresses in support of the Aboriginal women’s Red Dress Project. Vari Hall reminds me that I am part of a student body that urges its members to be critical of the education we receive and to find power in our collective ability. My peers empower me and I am proud to be of this incredible community.
I am a 3rd year student at the Schulich School of Business; a program that has provided me with a deep understanding of the relationship between corporate infrastructures and public institutions. This year, I chose to enroll in an elective course titled “Women and Work” and was surprised to learn an entirely different perspective on the labour force. Class discussions about the effects of wealth polarization on gender and racial minorities provided me with a critical lens I cannot un-see.
A common thread connecting the courses I have taken at York, is the need to approach every analysis with a holistic view. It is therefore unsettling that the emails I have received from York in the wake of the strike are exclusively one-sided. To gain a better grasp of the situation, I researched the perspectives of the student body and the union. I was shocked to come across statistics and personal accounts that point out gender disparities on York’s Executive Boards, the lack of funding for Sexual Assault Survivors, and the limited space on campus for breast-feeding mothers.
As a public institution, York continues to state and re-state its commitment to act in the best interests of its students. In its attempt to do so, several faculties are continuing to run amidst roaring picket lines. However, there is no doubt that the quality of our education is being compromised. The lack of obligation to complete coursework or attend lectures has led to disarray within the campus. Due to a shrunken class size, discussions within lectures are limited and tremendously strained. Campus facilities are eerily quiet and the momentum that year started off with has quickly faded.
Since the beginning of the strike in March, York has only shown up to the bargaining table once. Aside from this appearance and a ratification vote requested by the university, York has not demonstrated any actions that align with its promise of ‘student-interest’. In fact, I am consistently in a position where I am forced to choose between my moral alignment with the union and my education — a position that causes me a lot of inner turmoil.
Each morning I get off the bus at the Founders and Steeles intersection and I am filled with regret and shame. I walk past the picketers desperately trying not to make direct eye contact or be seen. I am no longer the empowered York student, I once was.