Friday, March 20, 2015

Crossing the Lines

I'm taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven't felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current "labour disruption," as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today--I'm moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I'll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital's research division--and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University's CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn't get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe's channa masala wrap again. 

This time around, I'm crossing the picket lines daily, because I'm forced to. If I don't, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I'm required to refer to the strike as a "labour disruption," to point students to statements like "Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike," when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won't be tenured faculty. It won't be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say "you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine--pay me enough to live on." This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks--a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)--have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 

But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they're vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 

I'm not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 


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  3. thank you so much for writing this article, melissa. just a quick correction re: the gains made in the 2008 strike. in 2008 we actually *lost* conversions...we went from the 20 we had in 2005 down to something like 6. it was really bad. but we did gain other things, the most significant of which were:
    1) post-retirement benefits for unit 2 (the first program of its kind in canada)
    2) the creation of the long service teaching appointment (lsta) program in unit 2.
    3) our paramedical benefits (massage, physio, chiro, naturopathy, psychotherapy, and podiatry). this was arguably the greatest gain in benefits in a single bargaining round in the history of the local.

    1. Thanks, anonymous! At least we're back up to 24.


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