York University Labour Dispute

Is YouTube the new medium of the oppressed?

Labour relations are a serious and difficult business ethics issue. Negotiation can, in some circumstances, result in “win-win” outcomes, but more often a gain by one side is a loss for the other. And the pointy-end of the labour-relations stick — the strike or lockout — is particularly harsh. Strikes at public institutions (such as hospitals, schools, universities) have an added dimension: both sides typically claim to be fighting for some version of the public good. You would think that would imply a kind of common ground — if everyone is fighting for the same thing, at least in part, then agreement should be easier than, say, in the auto industry or steel industry. But that seldom actually seems to be the case. Public sector strikes can be bitter indeed.

Case in point: the current strike at Toronto’s York University. The union on strike is Local 3903 of CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees), and represents the university’s contract faculty and (grad student) teaching assistants. The university cancelled classes (for some 50,000 students) when the strike began on November 6, and the doors have been shut ever since. Reports from the mediator appointed by the provincial government don’t sound at all optimistic.

(Here are a couple of recent news items on the strike: “Job security key, York U. strikers say”, from The Toronto Star, and “Nervous York students demand gov’t action”, from Maclean’s.)

Since the beginning, there has been consternation on the part of at least some members of the union at the University’s reluctance to negotiate, and with some apparently misleading financial analyses released by the University. Now, in the face of calls for the provincial government to pass back-to-work legislation, the battle for public (and in this case, undergraduate) opinion is heating up. One of the latest salvos in the dispute takes the form of a series of YouTube videos riffing on Apple’s famous “Mac vs PC” commercials and illustrating the union’s side of the story. Welcome to labour relations in the 21st Century.

[Disclosure: I’ve got friends among those currently on strike at York, and also among the non-striking York professoriate. So I’m likely not unbiased about this stuff.]
Relevant Books: The Ethics of Human Resources and Industrial Relations and Negotiating For Dummies.

8 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    I think the idea that a strike could result in a win-win outcome is pretty mistaken. You are right to notice that each side is fighting for a “public good”, in the sense that each side appeals to a kind of universal moral principle (i.e. Cupe: Education is a Right, and the Administration: there’s a recession), but there is no reason that two sides appealing to universalities means there is a common ground on which to adjudicate the dispute. I think it’s pretty obvious there is zero common ground in a labour dispute – that’s why we have a strike. A strike creates leverage, it’s a power move – because since there is no traction between the moral arguments from one side to the other, only strength decides the outcome of a strike. Of course the end of a strike is rarely an absolute victory for one side, but that does not mean that “both sides win” – to show that you’d need to show how the bargaining was not a zero-sum game.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Just to be clear, I didn’t say that a <>strike<> could be win-win. I said “negotiation” could result in win-win outcomes. Certainly 2 groups can negotiate their way to Pareto superior outcomes, I think.

  3. AndreiMR on

    Bargaining is definitely not necessarily a zero-sum game. (To prove it is or it isn’t would require an insane topological proof, because the space of possible agreements is easily noneuclidean, and defining a utility or value metric for something like “both parties agree that applicants will submit their applications by January 31 and receive a Notice of Intention to Appoint by June 15” isn’t gonna happen.)York’s current labour can be a non-zero-sum game if the final collective agreement results in improved labour relations at York. For twenty five years — or longer — labour relations have been utterly abysmal, which is why strikes occur often on that campus and take a long time. And, frankly, it’s purely the Administration’s fault — as anyone who knows York’s labour history can attest.


    I think the strike is completely unnecessary, and, even after the fact, the university should not have canceled classes for those not being taught by unit 2 faculty.Simply put, as a former TA at York, I made pretty good money. $45/hour marking tests. This is the standard rate: $6000 for 135 hours of work (in each semester) [6000/135=$44.44]. The contract given with the prof calculates approximately how many hours it will take you to do something, and in most cases, it will be done in much less time (135 hours on paper is really done in 90-100 hours). To be fair, lets say even 120 hours [6000/120=$50/hour]. Benefits are outstanding, and last time, they even negotiated for a fund for people who want to get a sex change (why should an employer pay for this… is beyond me, but I guess it’s cheaper than paying everyone another $10/hour).CUPE claims that they are below the poverty line because they make $18000/year for 3 ‘trimesters’. The problem is that York only needs them for 135 hours per trimester. So they’re effectively limited this way. If they’re below the poverty line, making $40-50/hour, then they should find themselves another job. Stopping 50,000 students from getting an education is in nobody’s interest. Because of CUPE’s greediness, 50,000 students have lost more than a months worth of work after they finish the year ($3200 each at $20/hr [avg starting salary], which is $160Million). International students have also lost their time here on educational visas as well as plane tickets. People also lost full time careers waiting for them upon graduation.The union needs to drop their ego and get on with life making, be happy with $44/hr for TAs. I think it’s time the students got together and started a CLASS ACTION LAW SUIT AGAINST CUPE3903!

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    I am going to permit just ONE comment like the one directly above, as an example of the kind of bitter debate going on. Please, if you’re not going to say anything relevant — i.e., something that comments on or responds to something <>in my blog entry<> — don’t bother commenting here.Thanks,Chris.

  6. Anonymous on

    Dearest STOP THE CUPE3903 STRIKE!,Please note that Teaching Assistants make just $35.00/hour (for a max of 10 hours/week). We do not make $44.00/hour, although I’m sure that many of us wish that we did. Moreover, most of us work more than just 10 hours/week. I personally put in at least 30 hours per week to attending lecture, prepping for my tutorials,teaching my tutorials, meeting with my students, answering emails from my students, and grading assignments. Those who do put in just 10 hours per week usually make pretty crappy TAs.As a side note, please keep in mind that our contract with York prevents us from obtaining secondary employment. All that we earn outside the University (and even within it in the form of additional TA/RA/GA assignments) leads to a claw-back of our funding.Also, please note that graduate students are also STUDENTS. I too have course work that I MUST complete, and tuition that I MUST pay. This is not to withstanding the conferences I MUST attend, the articles I MUST write, and the thesis that I MUST finish before my funding runs out. Also, please note that some graduate students are also INTERNATIONAL students (I am one of them). We too have lost some time, and we too will have to get extensions on our student visas.Finally, please note that CUPE 3903 is currently involved in a LEGAL strike. One cannot file a CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT against a Union that is in a legal strike. However, they can file a class action lawsuit against a University that chooses to not refund tuition to its students (graduate students included) regardless of the fact that classes have been suspended for the past month and a half (as per request of the York Senate, and not CUPE 3903). Thank you,Marianna AzarUnit 1 CUPE 3903 Member.

  7. Chris MacDonald on

    Note to all:In the name of fairness, I’ve allowed Marianna’s rebuttal to the comment posted by “STOP THE CUPE3903 STRIKE!”.All FURTHER comments should be addressed to the matters discussed in the blog entry, or else they won’t be approved.Thanks, folks.Chris.

  8. kriss bacon on

    the key here is perception and reality. both parties try to percieve to be fighting for the common good of the community, while also trying to make percieve that the other side is the enemy of the peoples. however, the reality is much more base and simple, and that is greed on both sides of the fence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: