Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Response to York University press release.

(Press release can be read here.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of CUPE 3903. I am currently not a member.

TORONTO, October 29, 2008 -- After months of negotiations, York University’s CUPE Local 3903 continues to demand wage increases in excess of 30 percent over the next two years, York University officials announced today. The Union voted in favour of a strike and will be in a legal strike position as of 12:01am on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008.
The first sentence is a lie. 3903 is willing to reduce the wage increases, as long as they keep members at the poverty line. The University wishes its supposedly essential academic workers to earn less per year than the poverty line in Toronto of $22,653.

“At this stage in negotiations both sides should be down to realistic wage and benefits proposals. With the economy worsening and the University facing budget reductions the Union's demands are simply unrealistic and unaffordable,” said Dean Robert Drummond, spokesperson for the University’s negotiating team.
One wonders, first, how many administrators are being asked to accept salary freezes or cuts; and, second, what excuse would be offered if the economy were not worsening. Is Dean Drummond seriously suggesting that if the economy were better, then the University would cheerfully pay whatever it was asked to? I sincerely doubt it, and thus I suspect Dean Drummond is being disingenuous (at best) when he says that is to blame for the University's unwillingness to even approach 3903's demands on compensation.

The Union representing the University’s contract faculty, teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs) is also demanding free tuition for their members as part of wage and benefit demands which are in excess of $70 million or 112% over two years. This amount represents approximately 11% of the University’s 2007-08 operating budget.
This is simply a lie. The current tuition-related request is for a reintroduction of post-residency fees, i.e., a reduction in fees for students who have achieved their coursework requirements. "Free tuition", although reasonable (and not uncommon at world-class universities), is no longer on the table.

“The University has done, and is doing, all it can to avert a strike knowing the harm it will cause its 50,000 students. We are prepared and willing to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract. We have offered the Union binding arbitration on all outstanding contract items in order to avoid disrupting students' education. The Union has refused,” said Drummond.
The first sentence is a lie. As can be seen here, the University is making no serious moves at the bargaining table, and is relying on a (likely well-paid) lawyer to browbeat the Union bargaining team. (Would firing that lawyer help free up some money, perhaps?) The third sentence is absurd. Why should the Union agree to allow a third party to impose a contract? It only makes sense if the University is incapable or unwilling to negotiate fairly.

“This situation is regrettable. Despite its best efforts to avert a labour disruption, the University must make plans in the event that the Union calls a strike,” he said.
See above.

The deans of all faculties have, in conjunction with the Chair of Senate, agreed that academic activities (with certain specified exceptions) will be suspended in their faculties in the event of a strike by CUPE Local 3903. The University’s academic leadership is of the view that most academic activities cannot continue without contract faculty and TAs.
And yet, somehow, contract faculty and TAs don't deserve to be paid commensurate to their importance. Does no one vet these things for internal consistency?

“We want to be sure that students have advance warning so they can make preparations for the suspension of classes in the event of a strike. We will need to communicate to all students and our institutional partners what academic activities will be suspended and what activities will continue,” Drummond said.
Did it not occur to Dean Drummond that if the University made significant moves at the table, then a strike could be averted?

It has become clear to me, viewing this from the outside, that the Union is tired of being taken for granted. It has also become clear to me that the University wants to use the current economic circumstances as an excuse to grind down the already meagre compensation for its supposedly essential employees. This dishonesty on the part of the University representatives is disappointing, but not surprising. It would be easier to take, at least on my part, if there was some movement on the University's part to trim upper administrative fat, through salary freezes or cuts and possibly eliminating/amalgamting several administrative positions. Of course, this is not happening.

Background

CUPE 3903 represents approximately 950 contract faculty; 1,850 TAs and 550 GAs.

Settlement Trends at York University and in Other Teaching Sectors

· York University Staff Association: three year agreement with salary increases of 3% in the first year, 3.25% in the second year and 3% in the third year plus additional benefit improvements

· Ministry of Education Provincial Framework Agreements (Education sector) for CUPE and OECTA: four year agreements with salary increases of 3% in each year (12% over four years)

· Wage adjustments in the Canadian public sector in 2008 averaged 3.3% (HRDC)
These comparisons are generally irrelevant. 3% of President Shoukri's $179,287 salary is $5,378.61. 3% of a TA's $12,307 salary is $369.21. (3% is also, incidentally, less than the 3.6% rate of inflation.) Clearly, there's a difference between the percentage increase in a salary and the absolute dollar increase. The question is whether the members of YUSA, etc. are making above the poverty line or not. TAs are not. Period. That's the argument, and the University doesn't want to engage with it. This is not surprising, as engaging with it would require admitting that they are trying to keep a significant chunk of their employees and their student body in poverty.

York University’s contract faculty, TAs and GAs are among the highest paid at Ontario universities with highly competitive hourly rates

· GAs and TAs are full-time students, not full-time employees. They work an average of 10 hours per week.
And yet, we are expected to complete our programs within six years, or we will be cut off from access to GA and TA positions. No other "part-time employee" at the university is required to complete unpaid work (coursework, dissertation, etc.) in order to remain employed. No other "part-time employee" at the university has a hard cutoff dictating how long they can be part-time employees. And yet, somehow, it's fair to call TAs "part-time employees" and compare their hourly wages to other hourly wages. Furthermore, it's no secret that TAs are generally underpaid. Calling York TAs "among the highest paid" (note, incidentally, the weasel "among the") ignores the fact that the sector consists of generally impoverished workers. Finally, a system in which graduate students are not able to support themselves and study simultaneously is a system that privileges graduate education for those who have independent means of support, and thus treats graduate education as a luxury item.

Total Cost of CUPE Local 3903 Proposals

· The Union is demanding wage rate increases in excess of 30% plus a cost of living allowance adjustment over a two year contract for employees represented by all three Units.

· The Union’s total package of proposals represents an increase in wages, benefits and other monetary provisions in excess of 112% over the two years. As a dollar amount, these proposals represent an increase in excess of $70 million over two years which is equal to approximately 11% of the University’s 2007-08 operating budget.
According to Maclean's, university presidents across Canada have enjoyed a 100% salary increase compared to 1997 rates, an increase at 4 times the rate of inflation. 3903's demands are that TAs, contract faculty, and GAs be brought up to the poverty line and their wages be indexed to inflation, to ensure that real-dollar wages do not decrease. Why is it reasonable to treat a single person -- a University President -- by one standard, and "essential" employees like TAs and contract faculty by a different one? What, exactly, is the relevant difference that justifies this?

University’s Operating Budget

· The University’s three-year operating budget approved by the Board of Governors in June, 2008 calls for 2 % budget cuts in each year of the three-year budget plan.

· Since the budget plan was approved, the impact of the global financial crisis and associated impact on financial markets has significantly worsened our financial situation. Preliminary year-to-date results as of the end of September for the pension plan and endowment funds show losses of about 10%. This represents losses of approximately $30 million to our endowment funds and $130 million to our pension funds. The October results are not available though we anticipate them to be worse.
Ignored here is a projected 5% tuition increase, which would effectively wipe out the University's proposed salary increases, assuming inflation and cost-of-living changes don't get to them first.

Employer’s Current Salary Increase Offer to CUPE Local 3903

· Offering 3 year contract

· Current offer (subject to further negotiations): 2% first year; 2% second year; 2.25% third year. (Employer made same initial offer to YUSA in their negotiations, which resulted in a negotiated settlement with a ratification vote result of 97% in support of the settlement)
Note that above they claimed the final salary increases for YUSA were 3%, 3.25% and 3%. An offer that has not been made to 3903.

Furthermore, the Union has repeatedly requested a 2 year contract. The University has yet to explain why this is not acceptable to them. The University is also making no mention here of the many other demands and concerns which remain on the table (e.g., the fact that the 3903 benefits funds are insufficient to meet the demands of a growing Union membership, even though the University continues to drive graduate enrollment higher).

There is also zero mention here of the demands made on behalf of contract faculty. Apparently, in the University's eyes, contract faculty do not exist.

Binding Arbitration: An Alternative to a Strike if a Settlement Cannot Be Achieved

· To eliminate any risk of a strike and the disruption it would cause for the University’s 50,000 students, the University continues to propose that the parties agree to binding arbitration by a neutral third party arbitrator to resolve all outstanding issues should the parties be unable to achieve a settlement prior to the strike deadline.

· Under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, the parties may agree to refer all matters remaining in dispute between them to an impartial and independent arbitrator for final and binding determination and thereby avoid or end a strike.

· The Union continues to reject the offer to use binding arbitration
The Union has no incentive to go to binding arbitration, as long as the University will genuinely and in good faith negotiate with the Union. The University is refusing to do this and attempting to provoke a strike in order to drive down TA, GA, and contract faculty compensation, and thus weather their financial mismanagement on the backs of allegedly essential employees. Furthermore, the disruption to classes in the event of a strike is entirely within the power of the University to change. It is the decision of the Deans to suspend classes during a strike; the Union has no power to make that choice. Attempting to shift the responsibility for this decision onto "part-time employees" is not only absurd but insulting.

Binding arbitration -- the imposition of a contract -- should be employed as a last resort, not as a first line. But the University has been very quick to suggest binding arbitration, which implies that they were never all that serious about reaching a negotiated settlement.

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as more than 200,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 11 faculties and 26 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.
York's pretensions to international prestige will never be realized insofar as it continues to mistreat contract faculty and graduate students. Genuinely world class universities provide tuition waivers and sufficient means to live for their graduate students. York University is being asked to do this, and is simply refusing.

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