Friday, November 07, 2008

Response to Toronto Star editorial

Original here.

York students hit again - Opinion - York students hit again
November 07, 2008

Ontario's economic future depends on a highly educated workforce. All the more regrettable, then, that 50,000 students find themselves without classes because of a strike at York University.
Agreed. Yet there is a surprising lack of sympathy for the -- highly-educated -- graduate students who are now wasting precious research hours trying to bring a recalcitrant administration into line; and the -- presumably -- important contract faculty who handle the bulk of the undergraduate teaching and are also wasting precious time walking a picket.

Classes were cancelled on Thursday after 3,350 teaching assistants and contract faculty walked off the job. Everyone involved must guard against letting this disintegrate into the type of bitter battle that left York University students suffering through disrupted classes during an 11-week strike in 2001.
That makes some sense. A little light on details, but a good sentiment.

The two sides remain far apart. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903 says it was "forced" on strike because the university wouldn't agree to an 11 per cent wage hike over two years, enhanced benefits and more job security. The university says the union's overall demands add up to a "totally unrealistic" 41 per cent hike.
The university says a lot of things. Occasionally, they say something true, but that seems to occur by accident rather than design.

Union representatives say they'll resume negotiations when the university makes a "serious offer." In fact, the university's final offer of 9.25 per cent over three years and other improvements was serious enough for two other campus groups – maintenance workers and clerical staff – who ratified similar contracts.
Relevance? Maintenance and clerical workers are already better paid than TAs and have greater job security that contract faculty. It's a blatant apples and oranges comparison. Moreover, the university only offered a contract at parity with other campus employees on the final day of bargaining before the strike. That's a serious offer?

Given those recent settlements, and the fact that York's teaching assistants already earn the highest wage in Canada,
Irrelevant, as TAs are generally underpaid.

the latest offer seems in line with the tough economic times.
Uh huh. And yet President Shoukri's contracted salary increases are also, I suppose, "in line with the tough economic times", not to mention the 15% salary increase given this year to the university's chief negotiator.

There's always an excuse as to why the university "can't afford" what TAs and contract faculty ask for.

"It's not the industry average."

"You're already well-paid."

"The university budget is tight."

"We have a deficit."

"It's a recession."

"You're replaceable."

And so on and so forth. None of it is meant seriously; it's pure PR spin. The union knows it. The university knows it. Apparently, the Toronto Star does not. The fact of the matter is that if the university was in a serious financial bind, they would be making across the board cuts. Exhibit A: Trent University.

On March 11 of this year, a budget bulletin was released to staff from the VP (Admin), including this:
As a means of addressing the deficit, a comprehensive benchmarking of Trent’s expenditures compared to other Ontario universities was undertaken. Based on these benchmark comparisons, managers have been requested to reduce their operating expense budgets by 5% to11% in an attempt to balance the operating budget for 2008/09. All departments will be participating in this budget reduction plan. In order to meet these targets, and considering salaries and benefits represent 85% of the University’s overall operating budget, it is expected that employment levels will have to be reduced. Managers have been asked to submit their plan to reduce expenses (or increase revenue), accompanied by appropriate business cases, towards the identified targets to their Senior Officer by March 19.
Trent is also restructuring and streamlining the upper-level administration.

York's solution to their "budget problems" (which are nowhere near the scale of Trent's) is to force the supposedly essential front-line academic workers to take effective paycuts. And like it. The point is that the university is trying to cover up their mismanagement of their budget by blaming it on "astronomical" proposals -- and they are only proposals, I note, nothing has been signed as the university has stopped bargaining -- from graduate students and contract faculty.

Onward with the editorial....

The university's proposal to settle the dispute through binding arbitration also seems a reasonable way to bring a quick close to this strike. The union has refused.
I suggest that the next time the Toronto Star's editors are looking for a salary increase, the matter be delegated to myself as a neutral third-party. In these tough economic times, it would be unreasonable for a newspaper editor to negotiate his or her own salary with management.

Wait a minute....

It's difficult to see how CUPE hopes to win public sympathy or do better for its members by keeping 50,000 students out of their classes.
Especially with editorial boards buying university spin hook, line and sinker. (Though, I suppose that means that York's PR kids are earning their upper five-/low six-figure salaries. Maybe we could cut those to save some money and give it to the TAs? Oh, of course, a silly idea, forget I mentioned it.)

That said, the longer CUPE 3903 stays out, the more desperate things will become for the university. They need new students coming in and paying new tuition dollars. They also need new monies coming in from the province which, AFAIK, are tied to student enrollment. The longer the union stays out, the less money the university gets from both these sources. Maybe then President Shoukri will have to take the bus like the rest of us....

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