Universities, Strikes, and Labour Law

I blogged last month about the strike at York University in Toronto. The strike is still going on (now in its 3rd month).

One of the quirks of having a labour dispute at a university is that some of the people at the university (primarily professors) will often have have special expertise in issues relevant to labour disputes, such as labour law, labour relations, finance, accounting, and, well, ethics.

At York, one good example of someone with such expertise is law prof David Doorey. As it happens, Doorey writes a labour law blog. Doorey’s blog entry from 2 days ago poses an interesting question. He poses it as a legal question, but it could just as easily be re-cast as an ethical one.

It seems the Deans of the various faculties at York made the unusual move of sending out a memo, directly to the employees on strike, encouraging them to vote in favour of the University’s current offer. The question Doorey posed to his readers: does this memo contravene sections of Canada’s Labour Relations Act that forbid employers from exerting certain kinds of pressure directly on union members (as opposed to dealing with union leaders)?

Even if the answer turns out to be “no” (i.e., even if no, the Deans’ memo didn’t contravene the Act) there still remains the ethical question: is it ethical for managers (which is what Deans are, at Universities) to communicate directly with employees during a strike, or is such communication always at least vaguely coercive, given the power asymmetries involved?

My initial instinct is that the Deans’ letter is at least not clearly unethical. In order for the Deans’ memo to be taken as implying some sort of threat, it has to be the case that a Dean could know how a particular union member had voted. But they presumably won’t know that. If there’s a threat here, it’s a very vague and probably implausible one.

On the other hand, the strike won’t last forever. And when it’s done, and when the University goes back to business as usual, the Deans will go back to their roles as managers and the strikers will go back to their roles as educator/employees. It’s easy to imagine that the Deans’ memo — and perhaps their interference, and at least the hint of a vague threat — will be remembered, and resented.

6 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    I’m concerned about the fact that two of the Deans who signed the letter urging the striking employees to ratify the Univesity’s latest offer are also actually members of the University’s bargaining committee. Does this not violate (at least the spirit of) Section 73’s prohibition on bargaining directly with the employees?

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Anonymous:Thanks for your comment. I don’t know the answer though; I’m not a lawyer. (Hopefully discussion on David Doorey’s blog will shed some light on that part.)More to the point (the point of this blog, anyway)…Does the fact you allude to make it <>unethical<> for those Deans to have signed the document? Are they in a conflict of interest?Chris.

  3. jhbreen on

    Hi Chris,I would like to thank you for a good analysis of the situation at York. However, I have to disagree with you that “If there’s a threat here, it’s a very vague and probably implausible one.” While it is true that if union members do not publicly voice their position on the forced ratification vote, then the deans will not know how people voted and thus retribution will be difficult to deal out. The problem however, is that anyone who would publicly oppose the forced ratification vote or criticize the deans would out themselves and thus open themselves up to potential attack. The implication of this is that the deans’ threats serve to silence the no vote and shut down a free and frank discussion of the issues. As a member of CUPE 3903 and a TA at York, I can tell you that most people are keeping their cards close to their chests these days.Regards,Jason Breen

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Jason:Thanks for the insight. What you say makes sense.That just shows how easy it is (for me!) to get things wrong (or at least to miss salient details) when commenting from afar!Chris.

  5. Sheldon Wein on

    It may be that so far as this memo is concerned the Deans are acting as managers. (Part of the job a a dean is to do some managing.) But you should remember that universities have Administrations not Managements. It is an important feature of universities–one to many administrators seek to undermine–that Deans and other act to administer policies produced not by them and other administrators but by the various stakeholders that comprise the university. One of the most important characteristics of universities is that they are administered not managed. We all need to remember that.

  6. Chris MacDonald on

    Sheldon:Nice point.My use of the word “managers” was basically to draw the analogy, to make sense of talking about this case in a business ethics context.Chris.


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