Classrooms Before Boardrooms: An Interview with CUPE 3903
On January 5, Pro Tem’s Campus Life Editor, Reia Tariq, sat down with CUPE 3903’s Communications Officer, Maija Duncan, to ask her some questions regarding the imminent strike potential. The following is a complete transcription of the interview.
To start off, can you tell me a bit more about the strike mandate vote?
The strike mandate vote will open for a few hours on January 19th, when we have a special general membership meeting where we will discuss the issues and open the vote. It will continue into all of next week, from the 22nd to the 26th. Basically, all day there will be polling stations on both campuses, but a strike mandate vote is a strike mandate vote. So it is basically telling the employer, we’ll do it if we have to. It’s not quite yet a vote that says we’re going on strike tomorrow, next week, or even next month. So there are two things that happen, historically speaking and also legally speaking, in terms of what happens when you get a positive strike mandate vote.
One is that the employer comes back to the table and suddenly things that [they] didn’t want to talk about, they’re willing to talk about, right? So over the last few months they’ve been waiting us out, to see if we have any kind of leverage to force them to bargain. Because, as unfortunate as it, the strike is our one tool to actually make it worth their while to come to the table and do more than “Oh, uhh, we’ll see, we have to think about it… we need to talk to other people.” And all of those things are legitimate, but over several months you start to wonder, you know, when will we get some movement?
Then there's the legal aspect of it, which is that if you want to go on strike, there are a number of things that need to occur. One is that you need a positive strike mandate vote and the other is that you need to have a conciliator issue with no board report, which basically lets the conciliation board know that the two parties are too far apart for reconciliation and then after the no board report is filed, there’s a seventeen day cooling-off period. After those seventeen days, with the strike mandate vote and no board report, that’s when you are finally in the legal strike position. Or a legal lockout position, which is like a reverse strike where, and it could very well happen, that an employer can lock out its employees.
Has a lockout happened in the past?
I want to say yes, but don’t quote me on this. And you know as far as the distinction for the students, either way it means that your TAs and contract faculty are locked out of the classroom. So it’s a meaningful distinction for you folks as much as it is a meaningful distinction for us. It just means that negotiations have broken down. [The distinction] is really just which side abandoned the negotiations or decided for it to be broken down.
But also for example, the last round in 2015. So when we ended up going on strike, the person who was helping us negotiate actually walked away from the table and said: “You guys are just not going to come to an agreement.” And they just walked away, which basically left us with no choice at that point. It’s like you bring back, and it’s the last step that we (CUPE 3903) do and only we do in fact, is that we bring back the final offer at that point when negotiations have broken down, and we bring it back to our entire membership and show it to them, and we will recommend or not recommend, but for us, at the end of the day it is the membership that decides whether or not we’re willing to strike for this or not.
So we’re still quite a while away before I can make any kind of prediction about what this will look like but at this point in time, the strike mandate vote is a very important step in not necessarily going on strike, but in the process of bargaining. That being said, I’m not going to pretend that a strike isn’t possible, it’s always possible.
If the result of the vote is to strike, will there be a ten-day period before the strike takes effect and is this protocol or this something unique to CUPE 3903?
So there is a seventeen-day period after the no board report, but if the membership vote is to go on strike, then we will be on strike as of midnight that night. Basically, what happens next is up to the university, we would like them to shut the university down, because that is the safest and fair way to do it, right? It makes picket lines unsafe when they open classes and also its unfair for you folks because that's sixty percent of your teachers that are not there. So the ball’s in their court, in that case, in terms of what they will do, but it’s hard to tell, you know? We are under new administration after all so it’s quite unknown what’s going to happen next and what kind of decisions are going to be made. It might also vary department by department, because there are some faculty members that may have some votes to say that we are not going to cross picket lines, so there is a lot of uncertainty around the strike both for you and for us. So if we do vote to go on strike, not this one, but our final one, then we will be on strike effective immediately.
Are there any measures being put in place, for example by the province, to ensure the strike does not continue past a certain length?
Boy, that seems like a very carefully worded question. I can’t speak on what the province would decide to do, I do know we were legislated back to work in 2008. It was a profoundly anti-democratic, anti-union thing and the act that they did against the colleges was also completely unacceptable. Because they could have arrived at that deal in a negotiated way, but the second that the province told them, that “You don’t have to negotiate, we’ll just legislate them back into work.” Then they just stopped negotiating, right? And our concern is that if the province starts making noises around legislation, then that means that York will just stop negotiating. So we would be very opposed to that development. That being said, I cannot say whether or not that is something that the government would do. I mean we are much smaller than all the colleges, so I’m not willing to speculate, but we are very much opposed to what they did to the colleges.
In the event of a strike how will the pay for a tenured faculty member be affected? Will contract faculty be paid for a duration of the strike?
Our members get strike pay, if they picket. And that’s just how it is under CUPE nation. Because CUPE 3903 is a local of CUPE national, which is the largest Canadian union. And they have a strike fund, out of which they will pay the people who picket – or do alternative duties for people who can’t picket. To participate in the strike, you're getting some form of money, it’s not much of a pay cut for graduate students, although it can be a bit of a pay cut for contract faculty depending on how many classes they teach, because they go from teaching half a class to teaching 5.5 classes. So there’s a wide range, and if we were on strike and I do want to stress that there is guarantee of a strike, no probability of it necessarily happening even. But if it did happen, when we go back to work, we negotiate a back-to-work protocol and in the back-to-work protocol, there will be negotiations surrounding what will happen the rest of the semester, and how much will we be paid to cover the rest of the semester. In 2015, we got 100% backpay, but in 2015 we also had to finish up the rest of the semester and the semester had ended.
Another thing York likes to talk about is our ‘hourly wage’, except we’re not paid hourly, right? We’re paid for the length of contract, which has a certain number of classes and a certain number of office hours, which if it happens it still happens, but it's just happening a month later now. But once again, we would have to see what the back-to-work protocol looks like. It was a little unheard of for us to get 100% backpay, so I wouldn’t necessarily count on it [happening again]. But there are these two aspects: one that while we’re on strike, CUPE National helps us out – a little bit. And when we come back to work, we negotiate how much of our contract we need to finish.
You talked a bit before about mediators, what exactly has been the role and/or benefit of the mediator during the proceedings thus far?
We filed for conciliation in early December, and it takes quite a while to get a conciliator, and as far as I know next Monday (January 8th, 2018), we will have a conciliator here in the room. We are hopeful that they might help a little bit, but that being said, there is a limit to what a conciliator can do, right? They will bring [an element of] back and forth; saying this is their position and they’ll tell both sides to be reasonable and find an agreement and it may very well be that the conciliator may find an agreement on certain things, and we are hopeful about that. But also filing for a conciliation is quite honestly part of the legal process that you need to be in to be in a legal strike position and being in a legal strike position, we have seen historically, is the most fool-proof way to get York to negotiate. So in that way a conciliator is going to be super useful, but I mean ask me again in two weeks and I might have a different answer!
What can the university &/ government do differently – or in general – to ensure that a strike won’t happen this time around?
The vote to strike has been every two rounds in the last six rounds. Now we’ve always had a strike mandate vote in one of those rounds, so like I said this is just a very routine part of the process. In 2011, we came to an agreement in the very final hour. So I mean what the university could do is just come to the table and negotiate, instead of waiting to see what we’ll do; waiting what kind of vote we’ll get. Why can’t we fast forward past all of that and just sit down and meaningfully negotiate? I mean that would take a lot of pressure off of everyone, because in that case you have a sense of where you’re both standing. You know here the main issues, what will and won’t cause us to go on strike and actually have a conversation with our employer. But the reality is, however, that’s not what labour relations are like anymore. It is very much adversarial. I’ve heard by the College’s bargaining team the same thing – that they basically got stonewalled. And when it’s so adversarial, they’re forcing us to do one of two things: either take a bad deal – which we’re not willing to do – or prepare for a strike regardless of whether or not we go out. So it would be great if we could actually break that and do some real, meaningful negotiating at the table, but that's not how it's going to go. As for what the government could do, I really can’t speculate on what the government is telling the university. I don’t know, and I don’t think we really can know, unless we somehow had access to that sort of information. But if there is a strike, I would like to see the government tell the university to negotiate and not instead, tell them: “Don’t worry, we’ll legislate them after”. But yeah, we would actually like to see the employer come to the table and talk and negotiate.
And if I can give you an example of one of the big things that we’re concerned about: in 2016, they cut 700 jobs from one of our units; mostly jobs for Masters students and graduate assistantships. So that is 90% of the unit – it was a very large part of the unit – so they cut 90% of those jobs, and the result of that is those people have lost their health benefits, they’ve lost access funding, they’ve lost access to childcare benefits, extensions for student disability, sexual violence leave – all of these things have made the accessibility of graduate school much more inaccessible. And we filed an unfair labour practice suit with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Currently, it’s in advance because we said to them that we would all prefer that instead of dragging this in front of the Labour Board, we actually negotiate this at the table. So they agreed and we agreed that we would put this suit in advance until we are in a strike position, at which point if we are not in agreement, it could come back.
And when we presented our proposal to the universities bargaining team – especially on this matter – they stared at us blankly. They didn’t respond, they didn’t ask us questions, and it’s not just that they needed to think about it – we’ve had several meetings since and still have had no response. That’s not bargaining and it’s very upsetting because they know this a potential strike issue. [They know] that we take this very seriously, that it’s a matter of accessibility, and that you just can’t cut 90% of jobs in a single unit and not expect the Union to be like: “Okay, no we need to talk about this!” And they’re not even talking about this – I don’t know what they’re doing, if they’re hoping we’ll bring back the unfair labour practice, in which case why did they agree with us to put it aside? But that’s only one of the many things where it’s like, you’re not even talking about it. If the answer to our proposal is no, then what’s your counter-proposal? We can’t work with just a no, but we can work with a “No, but have you considered this option?” or a “Yes to this part, but no to that.” That’s what negotiations are supposed to be like! Just being able to recognize that this is a problem that will be resolved in one of two ways. On the picket lines or through the Ontario Labour Relations Board – and neither of them portray a good image for York. Even if the unfair Labour Practice is resolved to their satisfaction, it’s not good for their image if that is even filed against them. Especially when the facts come out against them and you look at things like how they artificially inflated the cost of hiring a GA by increasing the amount that you have to pay for health amounts to 80% which is completely inflated. And then one of their research officers sent an email to faculty saying don’t hire GA’s because then your grants will be rejected, because they will be too expensive. And they’re saying that that is not union busting – of course it is! Of course it is, and we have documents that show it [which] have been filed by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. So, you know, there’s been a lot of – if I may understate a bit – very bad stuff happening behind the scenes over the last few years, ever since we were in the last strike. And that’s frustrating because when I talk to undergrads, I often get the same question: “But didn’t you win everything you wanted last time?” Because the answer is not really. Because it’s never everything we want, right? We identify a few priorities, and then we fight for those. And the one we identified – and fought very strongly for last time – was tuition indexation, which basically reversed the fact that York had unilaterally increased tuition for International Students by $6000-$7000 a year. So we won that one, but within a few months we were informed that they had decided to creatively interpret our language that we had agreed on after the strike. So that was grieved and it went through the legal process and it was going to go before the Arbitrator, and we were very aggressive about it. We had a little picket line with signs that said: “Settle for 2016, so we strike for 2017”. And about a month before we’re supposed to go before the Arbitrator, we get a “can we negotiate” request and a few days before we go before the Arbitrator, we got a deal that actually worked out in our favour. But at the same time it’s not exactly a win when you win the thing that you thought you had won nine months before. Then it gets worse because just as we won that, and we won those protections for international students, who, to clarify, pay much higher tuition than domestic students. So after we won that, or just around the same time we won that, and they kind of seemed to imply that they were trading it off, like no we’re getting that indexation, but we are not trading anything, that’s around the time they told us they were cutting 90% of those jobs. So basically we have had no time to grieve since the last strike, and I think that’s a context that a lot of people are missing. Like why on earth do you want back-to-back strikes, didn’t you win last time? And the answer is did we really? You know, if you even consider last time a win. It wasn’t ideal, but we did get our childcare fund; we got new language indexation – even though we had to fight for it. Just the fact that labour relations at York are so bad, that in-between rounds of bargaining more and more issues pile up, and these are just the broad issues that affect like an entire unit or a whole group, such as with the international students or graduate assistants. And we got some issues for contract faculty too. And there’s also the department-specific issues, where very strange things appear to be happening at the Lassonde School of Engineering. The School of Nursing appears to be having a lot of issues as well with exploitation and classes that are too large to be safe – stuff like that. And when you look at that broader picture, that’s when it starts making sense, and I keep emphasizing that the strike mandate vote is routine, and it is.
We’re also very serious, because of all these things that keep on happening, that this is the main power we have, and because of how labour law is structured, we can only operate once every three years and by golly we will if we have to. Because of how this has been structured, oh and another thing that happened since last summer Unit 1’s Teaching Assistants lost their summer funding. York decided to change how our funding is structured and basically took our summer funding away, and we filed a grievance on that, and that’s Step 4 – which is the most serious step. And then they proceeded to not respond to us for several months, even though it’s in our collective agreements that they have to respond to us within certain time periods. And when we did finally have our Step 4 meeting with them – several months later – as far we know I know, we never received a written or formal response. I mean I’ve seen their PR and their communications, and they keep talking about respect and accountability but at the same time they’ve backed us into a corner. By not respecting all of these legal processes in between bargaining rounds, like there are all these legal processes, which is how we support our members rights, which is why we have this office with four staff members, because we don’t just exist when we go on strike, we exist all year round. We’re full-time and people come in every day, and they have problems with either their pay or who got hired for what position, or they need support or emergency funds, or funds for childcare – we always have people coming in and out, talking to our staff, talking to our executive, trying to figure stuff out. And anyone who’s worked at York for any measure of time, I know that the students use the hashtag ‘Yorked’ – well we do too.
It’s very much a case that, if you work for any measure of time, in between bargaining rounds there are problems that are not being addressed in the way that they are supposed to be addressed according to our collective agreements and labour law. And so that’s the position we’re in, it’s a very tight corner, and it’s not a very good position at all.
One question I have to mention that we get often is if we do get a good deal and it costs the university money, will my tuition then go up? And I think the answer to that is if it does go up, that is on York – because there is money, there is a 36 million dollar surplus, and they keep hiring upper level administration, and those positions often come with 6 figure salaries – always 6 figure salaries. And one thing we don’t often consider is, if you hire a new VP, then you need to hire a whole new office to support that new VP. Currently, they are creating a new position – some kind of office of Diversity – because what we need for Diversity is for some high up admin to explain that there is no problem. We have some proposals around diversity and equity that we think are more useful and better than hiring a new VP. That being said, we have all this money that exists at York and if the university administration chooses to blame the cost of fairly compensating the people who teach at this university for the cost of rising tuition, then a) they’re lying and b) that means they really need to reconsider where there putting their money and what we’re really trying to emphasize this bargaining round is that want to put classrooms before boardrooms. We’ve seen these numbers where enrollment is up 36% since 2000 and some 63% since 2000 for senior executives, some of that money should really be going to classrooms since senior executives don't do that face-to-face contact with students. Getting more senior executives does not improve the quality of education at York, in a way that smaller classroom sizes, contract faculty who have more job security – and therefore more time to prepare; and you know, teaching assistants who don’t have to scramble because they lost their summer funding would be nice. Classrooms are also graduate classrooms and all of these master students and mostly master students who lost the jobs that they had previously been given gravely affects graduate education here at York. So classrooms before boardrooms is really what were pushing for.
How does your office feel about the student’s response to the potential for another strike? Has there been support for the cause, or has there been apathy towards it? Because as you mentioned, there are inevitably questions that come up surrounding tuition increases and complaints around the frequency of strike actions at York.
I mean at this point, we do get a lot of support; of course, not all support is unconditional – and it shouldn’t be. But we have been doing a lot of the work of just standing around talking to people and passing around leaflets, and also having more of a presence on social media. Explaining where the issues are, where the money is going, explaining why some of the things we’re asking for are not unreasonable. And I think if you can sit down with someone and explain to them “This is what is going on. This is some of the stuff that has been going on for years. And now this is what we’re asking for”. If you can get a chance to explain [to students] why they’re important to us, then a lot of people are supportive. And when I talk to students, a lot of what I get is that they understand that, but at the same they don’t want us to strike and that’s perfectly understandable. What I always tell them is that the best thing to do if you support the demands in theory but don’t support the strike, let the university know that you support the demands. So that’s signing our petitions, it’s coming to our rallies once we have them, and if it comes down to it, it’s to not cross the picket lines – because the stronger the community support, the stronger the likelihood of us getting a good deal, and the stronger the community support than the stronger the chance that the strike will be short and successful.
Do you have any suggestions to students in the event of a strike on ways they could help, or things they should avoid doing to show support?
Don’t cross the picket lines. And students should know that they are protected by Senate policy from crossing the picket lines.
There has been some talk that if a strike were to happen again various student groups would consider lobbying for some form of compensation for their tuition during a strike period. How do you feel about this?
If we go on strike – and that’s because York pushed us into a corner and forced us to – if we do that, then by all means they should be responsible for what this means for the entire community. Now what that looks like, I don’t really have an official opinion on that. I think if students want to organize for their own rights, then by all means go for it. We would certainly support students pushing for their rights.
What exactly are you legally and not legally bound to strike for or ask for?
Right, so the university and us have very different definitions of that, so the idea is that we represent the people who are unionized under CUPE 3903, so teaching assistants, graduate assistants, contract faculty – and now part time librarians archivists but they’re off-cycle with us, they negotiated their first agreement successfully last January, so right now they are not part of these current negotiations but in the future we would like to roll them up in with us because there are like 20 of them, so it makes sense to do it together rather than bargain separately for them. So leaving aside part-time librarians and archivists, so these three units represent these three different kinds of jobs and, according to the university, they want us to bargain things that are specifically employment related. In the past though, they have offered things like tuition freezes, which are not employment related. So they have not always followed their own line on that, so in reality there aren’t necessarily things we can’t bargain for, because we can always ask, right?. And then they’ll say no, that’s not relevant and we’ll say yes it is and why. But one thing we can’t really do is bargain for people who aren’t under our scope clause. So for example, undergrad issues. We can support but we can’t, in our collective agreements, do things about people who are not unionized under us. Now we could do a unionization drive, but that’s a whole ‘nother story and not something we’re looking at right now.
How do you feel about unions in general? Are they on the decline or not? Are they still relevant or useful in this day and age? What do you feel is the future of unionship?
Well I don’t have a crystal ball but I do have a few things to say about that, one of which is that CUPE 3903 has the best agreement in the sector. That’s not incidental – it’s not because we asked nicely and York said: “Okay”. It’s because we have a very democratic membership during Union which has caused us to be very strong in advocating for the things that we need. And in doing that, we set the standard for the rest of the sector – which is why we can’t take a bad deal. Because when we take a bad deal, everyone takes a bad deal, right? So in that way, unions are still working, even though it took way too long, we did finally get tuition indexation and then we got letters from all over the country, from other unions asking things like: “Can we see your language,” “How did you do that, we would like to do that too.” And there's also something to be said about the great work that Unite Here Local 75 has been doing outside of the university unionizing hospitality workers. And then there was the strike here at York last year with the cafeteria employees, and there does seem to be a rise in that sort of unionization – the private sector ones, and they’re doing quite well.
As to what globally or nationally that would looks like... I mean some people might say that unions are done, but I don’t quite believe them because I see us getting victories left, right and centre. That does mean we have to keep pushing. We need to keep pushing, because in the current economy that we’re looking at, the best guarantee of any kinds of rights is through a union. You saw what happened to those Tim Horton workers after the minimum wage increase, and now for them it’s like: “No more breaks for you!” That would have never have flown if they had been unionized. So there is still a lot of work to do but it’s still something, as a society, we should be pushing more towards. And more aggressive unionization, more democratically led unions. I’m a member of the executive committee here, but I only make decisions that our membership tells me they are okay with.
Our strategies, our ideas, our direction, that is driven by our membership and that is a large part of our power. We do open-bargaining and, as far as I know, no other local does open-bargaining, where anyone can come in and listen – it’s very politicizing. These things are important – to be transparent and to show people what our employers are doing and democratically led unionism is the way to do it. A lot of this business union stuff is why unions are often brushed off as being in decline, because when you’re in the pocket of your employer... well, nothing really good ever happens. Transparency, openness and democracy; if you have unions like that, we will go a long way.
You mentioned that other unions were reaching out to you. On a broader scale, where does York University stand in terms of finding solutions about whether or not to strike?
Well I don’t have answer for that because it think for every situation it’s very specific, and unless you are part of the context, it’s kind of hard – it’s like apples and oranges, to say the least. I’m from Quebec, so I’m familiar with that context, and I’ve also been living here for a while so I’m familiar with this context, and I found that it is just so incredibly different that it’s very to hard to compare. So my answer to that question is basically an elaborate shrug.
What are you thoughts regarding the role that the media plays or should play when reporting on these types of occurrences or events? Do you feel that they portray a biased perception in regards to one or both sides?
We actually received surprisingly good coverage in 2015 from the Global and Mail. I think the media has a responsibility to represent the facts as they occur and to dig a little bit. Like, say if the employer says that you’re getting paid $68 an hour, they shouldn’t go just go, “Oh, okay” and publish that as fact. They should really check that out, and I have been seeing a lot of that in the media recently in regards to the minimum wage increase, where there have been headlines that have been misleading and stuff like that. If you’re investigating then you definitely want to look into facts. That being said, there is some really great journalism going on, right? There’s been some good stuff on the colleges, and got some good reporting back in 2015. And I do think that raising awareness of the ways that universities are going – not just York, but universities and colleges in general – are depending more and more on precarious, underpaid, overworked faculty. Just the awareness of that fact is due to the media doing a very responsible job of discussing those issues; the media isn't quite fond of strikes, but I mean no one is. We’re not fond of strikes; no one’s fond of strikes. But if we can focus on the issues rather than the big pictorial stuff that’s happening around it and just talk about what the issues are, then I think the media would have a very important role to do right. Social media also an increasing role, which is why we’ve been increasing our presence on Facebook and Twitter, and why we’ve been tweeting our bargaining meetings – which is actually something no other local does. I mean we are in the Information Age so we all need to play that game. But at the end of the day, if we get support then that will lower the likelihood of a strike and also length of any strike, but at the end of the day, this is between York University, as the employer, and their employees, unionized under CUPE 3903. Our biggest trump card is quite simply when we withdraw our labour – they might try to do business as usual but in the end, 60% of teaching at York is done by our members.