Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Will you be a lousy scab/Or will you be a man?" This past semester: a semester of strikes

The academic year of 2008-09 could very well turn out to be the ‘Year of the Strike.” At the University of Windsor, the faculty association was on strike for the first few weeks of the school year. Over the last several weeks, contract staff at York have been on strike, which has effectively shut down the university, with the exception of the Law school and the Business school which have recently reopened.

Labour issues for the year will probably not stop here. Labour unions at Carleton, the University of Toronto and Guelph are all calling for reasonable improvements: fair wages, job security and for some, a common expiry date of collective agreements. Each of these situations could result in strike.

At York, rather than hearing out the union’s representatives, the administration immediately called for binding arbitration. This is approach is not only expensive, but is usually reserved to be a last resort after negotiations break down.

And, rather than support the striking workers, many of whom are students, the local student newspaper the Excalibur has decided to take aim at the local student representatives and the union. Instead of focusing on students’ reaction to the strike, the Excalibur uses the strike as a back-drop to attack York Federation of Students President Hamid Osman.

While going after progressive student union representatives might make for a juicier story, the Excalibur is effectively siding with the administration. In this game, it’s students and staff who suffer. Why waste time trying to sew divisions among the student body? Instead the Excalibur should be calling for the administration to negotiate a fair contract and the strike can end.

It is a disservice of the Excalibur to ignore the core issues. The chronic underfunding of colleges and universities has lead to the labour strife across the sector. But somehow media generally has left this untouched. Nowhere is there any analysis or even mention of these problems. It’s no wonder that CUPE Ontario has been steadily working toward coordinated bargaining.

Not only has the student media let students down, but so too have so-called student “leaders” like Trevor Mayoh from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (which represents none of the students’ unions at York, or anywhere near York). Recently he declared that CUPE’s goal of coordinating the expiration of collective agreements across the sector would give staff too much power, so much that he told Elizabeth Church at the Globe and Mail that he wouldn’t feel comfortable.

University administrators pretty much have a monopoly on power at our colleges and universities. To think that giving some of that power to any other stakeholder at an institution would be somehow dangerous is absurd.

The media and regressive student 'leaders' need to take a step back and re-evaluate what this struggle is really about.

Students and workers would do much better to have a greater say in the affairs of their institution. They would also have a much better chance of being heard if all contract staff at every institution could threaten to shut down the sector if their demands are ignored.

Contract staff spend time in classrooms with students. Administrators do not. Contract staff often have no guarantee of employment, are paid menial wages, and fulfill the mandate of an institution on a very basic level. Most administrators are paid well-over $100,000 a year, have great contracts and, even if fired, have a severance packages that would make the average person drool.

People who choose to teach and who choose to not climb an administrative ladder are important and special to the students they teach. All students, all elected student officials AND the campus press need to step back and see the real battle here. The Ryerson Free Press knows which side it’s on, which side are you on?