Why would any student take the risk of attending York University?
York University’s sprawling campus doesn’t conjure up images of a grimy industrial park where unionized blue-collar workers set up picket lines against factory fat cats.
But York’s ivory tower setting is ground zero for the most persistent labour relations quagmire in the province.
On Friday, the province reached into the past to rescue York from itself, announcing an old-fashioned “Industrial Inquiry Commission” to probe the academic impasse.
For the fifth time in the last two decades, its teaching staff are on strike. While walking the picket line over the past six weeks, they have forced its 50,000 students — many of whom have gone into debt to pay their tuition — to choose whether to cross their perennial line in the quicksand.
An “industrial inquiry” seems an ominous misnomer for a campus that aspires to equip tomorrow’s creative classes for the knowledge age, rather than revisit the industrial (and ideological) revolutions of old. But Ontario’s biggest university campus is trapped in a death spiral within a time warp.
No other post-secondary institution in this province suffers from so many strikes affecting so many students. Given the frequency of the last five strikes (the previous one was in 2015), any person considering a degree at York must bank on the probability of a major labour disruption during the average four-year term on campus.
Why would any student take such a risk? Why would any parent countenance it?
More to the point, why would
York’s teaching staff and administration allow it to keep happening, over and over?
York’s notoriety is impossible to ignore. After a bitter strike in 2008-09, the parent CUPE National union placed York’s Local 3903 under “administration” after complaints about financial improprieties and internal disputes in a chaotic environment.
A subsequent forensic audit found nearly $300,000 misspent on food and beverages delivered to picketers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in strike pay lacking documentation — contributing to an $800,000 debt to CUPE headquarters. The local’s executive was disbanded.
Now the union is under new leadership, and it clearly has the support of today’s membership, who heeded their call to reject York’s latest offer in a resounding 86 per cent vote last week. The administration argues the deadlock is best resolved by arbitration, but the union refuses, insisting on waiting out the stalemate.
Judging by Friday’s confrontation between CUPE members and York president Rhonda Lenton — picketers took their protest to a downtown panel on the future of universities and shouted her down until she cancelled her speech — there’s not much dialogue. It’s odd to see striking academics exercising the right of assembly only to deny another academic a similar right, but labour disputes aren’t picnics — not even at lunch speeches.
What’s noteworthy about the York strike is how different it is from most other public-sector work stoppages, where workers hold monopoly powers that give them added leverage. In last year’s strike by 12,000 college teaching staff, for example, they were able to shut down all 24 colleges across the province — leaving students nowhere else to go.
Not so at York, which is carving out an unwelcome reputation as a centre of disruption, not innovation. Its workers appear oblivious to the economic reality that governs privatesector unionists when walking the picket line:
Don’t put yourself out of business to prove a point.
Labour disputes revolve around power dynamics. Wise private-sector unions use their might to bring management to heel, but there’s always a natural tension to avoid fatally wounding their employer by eroding market share to the point of jeopardizing jobs.
That axiom is absent from the calculus of York’s leaders on both sides of the labour divide.
Yes, the strike is unfairly demoralizing for 50,000 students at the most vulnerable point in their academic year. But it is also discouraging for future students who might have been tempted to apply for admission and may now be inclined to take their business elsewhere.
Yes, York is a university, but it is not immune to the laws of economics and the vagaries of the education marketplace. By hurting today’s students and scaring away tomorrow’s students, this strike risks the future of the entire teaching staff.
At what point does a recurring standoff reach the point of diminishing returns — and no return?