Thursday, January 15, 2009

CUPE 3903 on York faculty petition

Fred Ho of CUPE 3903 wrote the following in reply to the recent petition (see earlier today) circulated by, apparently, our old friend Bernie Lightman. Worth a read.
Dear all,

I was very dismayed to read a second letter being circulated by Bernie Lightman with regard to current labour dispute. I am asking that you consider my thoughts below prior to consenting to make public your support of the letter.

Today, I am writing to you not under direction of the union but as a staffperson who has been advocating on behalf of individual 3903 members over the last eight years. The distinction is important to me because I believe I have a more intimate understanding of our members as I have represented a broad cross-section of the union. With that said, I acknowledge I am far from a unbiased member of the York community although if Bernie Lightman who worked for Employee Relations for years can circulate the letters that he has, I think it is fair to request that my reply be duly considered.

First, whatever your views on the strike, I think you need to weigh the good you think you are doing by signing such letter against the effect your signature will have on your working relationship with your graduate student and/or contract faculty colleagues. While my observations are far from scientific, my sense of how some graduate students reacted to the sight of many familiar names on the first letter was a certain sense of despair. Comments such as “don’t even show that list of names to me, I just don’t want to know who is on that list if I am going to continue my degree here” or “I just don’t know who to work with given that ‘x’ signed that letter” were not uncommon. And rather than arguing that there is an abuse of your positions of relative authority by signing this letter as some are, I ask that you consider whether the poisoning of these very important relationships is in anybody’s interest.

Second, please do take a step back from the rhetoric and consider the other messages you are sending beyond what is being literally communicated in the letter. I have heard from a number of faculty who seem to have little or no sympathy to the ‘living wage’ arguments that the union has made for the graduate student members. But do any of you doubt that funding is not an important factor in the horrific attrition rates amongst doctoral students (that is the percentage of those who enroll who do not finish)? While the issue of why doctoral students do not finish is complex, my view after hundreds of conversations I have had with graduate students over the years is that the tyranny of ‘living like a grad student’ (e.g. shared housing well into your thirties, delayed life choices, accumulating debt) combined with the incessant (and sometimes paralyzing) pressure of doing something brilliant due to the very competitive academic labour market are easily the two most common themes. As reasonably privileged members of the community, my opinion is that your public agreement with the York administration’s view that this is a fair deal is going to be read as a negation of their very experience and will not be well received.

Third, whatever your views with regard to the contract faculty job security issue, please do acknowledge their contribution. The fact of the matter is that the bulk the funding the university receives is through undergraduate tuition and grants and many contract faculty teach the largest courses at York. As an example, it is not at all unusual for contract faculty to deliver without any teaching support a class of 50+ students generating tuition and grants of approximately $100 000 for the institution. Their salary for this course is just over $14 000 with vacation pay. The rest of the monies no doubt go to fund necessary things for those students to receive their education (clerical and maintenance staff, upper administration, utilities). But this difference between what they are paid and the revenue generated also goes to support your faculty salaries and benefits. Many of you may rightly protest that that is simply the flawed funding formula in which the government is supporting research performed by full time faculty in the universities, but please don’t try to convince any contract faculty who have spent their working lives in this system for a decade or more that they don’t deserve a bit of the permanency and better working conditions that you work under that what they are asking for is unreasonable.

Last, whatever happens with this labour dispute, I ask that you save some of your energy and ask how much the administration has contributed to a situation in which their ‘fair and sustainable’ offer resolves none of the issues above. Questions I would put to them include whether the financial problems have anything to do with the fact that they have been constructing buildings on a fifty cent dollar from the government and mortgaging the rest out of the operating budget. I would also ask whether they feel their inability to convince our members that their offer is fair in difficult economic times have anything to do with the upper administration’s lack of accountability in how much money they pay themselves? Finally, I would ask why they decided to present this offer for ratification in January rather than in December? If they indeed think that it is a fair offer and the only thing that stands in the way of ratification is the CUPE 3903 leadership, could they not have put this very offer to the membership a month ago or more? On this last point, I suspect if they answered honestly they would say they wanted to wait until the CUPE members felt the gloom of a third lost month of pay and they might be right to guess that their only possibility of ‘winning’ was in a war of attrition. But at least this honest answer would counter-balance the claim that it’s simply CUPE intransigence which has done the harm that the Lightman letter suggests.

Yours Sincerely,

Fred Ho
Local Staff
CUPE 3903

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