Why would any stu­dent take the risk of at­tend­ing York Univer­sity?

The Peterborough Examiner - - Opinion - MAR­TIN REGG COHN Mar­tin Regg Cohn is a colum­nist based in Toronto cov­er­ing On­tario pol­i­tics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

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?

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