Displeased with the offer of settlement tabled by York University administration last week, 2230 York teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and contract faculty walked off the job after over 20 bargaining sessions. The York University strike is the latest in a series of organized Canadian student uprisings beginning almost a year ago at McMaster University and followed at the University of Toronto. The strikers at York are seeking job security for contract workers, a pay increase that keeps pace with inflation, and a contract for graduate assistants (GAs). Although the administration calls their tabled offer "fair and reasonable," workers maintain that the offer includes unacceptable rollbacks.

"We are basically striking to keep what we have," says Michelle Lowry, media liaison and co-chair of Women's Caucuses for the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, the union that represents the workers on strike. She explained that the administration has proposed changes that "threaten" programs designed to provide job security for contract workers. These include aspects of the Special Renewable Contracts program, which seeks to eliminate the need for yearly reapplication for a group of about 40 contract faculty members with 15 or more years seniority, and the York Conversion program, which offers the opportunity for contract faculty members with 5 or more years of seniority to compete for tenure-stream positions.

In the previous contract, the university reserved eight positions for converting contract faculty, but the administration's latest offer reduced that to five positions in the first year of the agreement and four in the second year. The administration tabled this proposed change despite a recent resolution passed by the York University Faculty Association stipulating that all eligible contract faculty receive the conversion option in the next few years.

Additionally, York workers are demanding annual wage increases. The union originally proposed a 5% wage increase, but in bargaining sessions they have compromised to 3.75%. The university administration is holding firm at a proposed 2% increase. Vice President of Finance and Administration Phyllis Clark calls the union's 3.75% proposed increase "financially unsustainable" and has stated that implementation of the proposed increase "would significantly impede the university's ability to fulfill its academic mission and meet its financial responsibilities." In balancing the overall budget, Clark hypothesized that "[a 3.75% annual wage increase would] necessitate a 2.5% cut across the university."

Not surprisingly, the union takes issue with this math, claiming that a 2.5% across-the-board cut would equal over $10 million dollars of the administration's operating budget--more than five times more than the cost of the union's proposals. "I'm shocked by their total misrepresentation of the situation. I only hope they come to their senses, return to the bargaining table, and begin listening to our fair and reasonable proposals," says Rob Heynen, the union's treasurer.

To add fuel to the fire of dissent, York University issued a press release in which the administration repeatedly highlighted the fact that York workers are among the highest paid in the country. Lowry acknowledges that may be true, but points out, "In this city where a one bedroom apartment usually costs about $1000 per month, and in a province where we pay among the highest costs in tuition, we need a living wage." Moreover, Lowry alleges that contract faculty currently make less money than high school teachers, whose salaries range from $31,000 to $65,000 annually. By contrast, contract faculty earn $11,221 for each course they teach. The York administration proposes to increase that to $11,445 retroactively for 2000-01. Contract faculty can teach up to 5.5 courses, for a maximum earning potential of $64,207.

Also at issue is the establishment of a first contract for some 380 graduate assistants (GAs) who are full-time graduate students. GAs differ from teaching assistants (TAs) in that their population comprises mostly first-year Master's degree students and they perform administrative, clerical, and research duties rather than give lectures, tutorials, and demonstrations. The York administration proposes to pay them a base wage of $4500 for 270 hours of work per academic year--approximately half of what their TA counterparts get paid for equal amounts of work. The administration stipulates that the difference in pay between the GAs and TAs could be made up with scholarship and bursary money, as "there is nothing in the collective agreement that restricts or limits in any way the ability of graduate students to receive this additional graduate support." However, Lowry comments, "there is no guarantee that the GAs will be able to top off their salaries with scholarship or bursary money [owing to the competitive nature of many scholarships and awards]. Our members believe that GAs deserve the basic security of health benefits, access to funding for the entire school year, and protection against tuition increases." The wage proposed by York administration for the GAs is not enough to cover the cost of tuition.

The elimination of the post-residency fee structure in 1995 effectively doubled the cost of graduate tuition at many Ontario universities. In 1991-92, York students paid $2067. Last year, York students paid $4421. The administration has proposed extended protection against further tuition increases for all current employees for the duration of their uninterrupted membership in the bargaining unit. Lowry asserts that this "grandfathering" of tuition fees is not acceptable to the union membership because it opens the door for further erosion of wages (which are regulated) through tuition increases (which are not regulated) in subsequent years.

As this article was being written, negotiations had not resumed and no talks were scheduled. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 maintains that it is willing to meet provided that rollbacks are removed from the table. York University has also stated that they are ready to return to the table at any time. CUPE 3903 has agreed to cease picketing during convocation at the request of the university. But after 20 negotiation sessions, it's unlikely the strike will end soon.