York University is the "other" large university in Toronto. The university has been closed since November 5th when members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 (CUPE Local 3903) went on strike.
The situation is a bit complicated because the union has three different groups and there are separate contracts for each group, even though the contracts are all part of the same negotiation package. The three groups are:
Unit 1 if they have a teaching contract (note - teaching includes demonstrating, tutoring, and marking) and they are a full-time graduate student.What I'm mostly interested in is the graduate students in Units 1 & 3.
Unit 2 if they have a teaching contract and are not a full-time graduate student.
Unit 3 if they have a graduate assistantship or research assistantship and are a full-time graduate student.
After several months of fruitless negotiations, the university exerted its legal right to call for a ratification vote when the union negotiators turned down the latest offer. The vote will take place later this week and, as you might have guessed, the CUPE 3903 leaders are urging their members to "Kill the Rat."
What is the role of a faculty union in situations like this? It's really not complicated. Sister unions will invariably support the right to collective bargaining and demand that both sides negotiate in good faith. Faculty unions tend to tilt in favor of the TA union simply out of solidarity but also because both groups often have common grievances against the administration.
Here's where things get messy. As reported in several newspapers, a group of 300 faculty members recently signed a letter urging CUPE 3903 members to ratify the latest offer by the university administration. Here's how it was reported in the National Post.
Another group urging the union to vote yes is nearly 300 faculty members who signed their names to a letter urging CUPE to accept the current contract proposal.Why is this a problem? Well, for one thing, it's a problem because these 300 faculty members are going against the advice of their own union.
The signees of the letter are also members of the York University Faculty Association (YUFA).
YUFA president Arthur Hilliker said while he does not endorse the letter, he does not condemn it or believe it to be illegal either, according to Eric Lawee, a York humanities professor and one of the letter’s signees. YUFA maintains it wants a fair and equitable offer for CUPE.
“We, the undersigned retirees and full-time faculty members of York University, urge our colleagues in CUPE 3903 who have been on strike since November 6, 2008, to end their labour action by accepting the current contract offer of the York University administration,” the letter begins.
The letter addresses specific concerns if the strike were to drag on, including the potential loss of the summer term, which not only would hurt the school’s undergraduate students, but would affect CUPE as well, with possible job losses due to the elimination of the summer term.
“In their own interest and that of the entire university community, we urge CUPE members to end their labour action and help the university resume expeditiously the provision of its full academic programs,” the letter concludes.
Mr. Lawee said that there were two main reasons behind the letter. The first was due to “a strong sense that the strike has dragged on too long and that the rights and needs of students must now take priority over all else,” he said. “And ... that this should be an easy settlement to endorse because the offer is very fair.”
The York University Faculty Association (YUFA) issued a press release today in which they reiterated their position.
Press ReleaseThe second and third points are very important. Faculty members are often the bosses of teaching assistants and they need to be very careful to remain neutral in situations like this. Because they are in a position of authority over graduate students they should not be urging these students to vote one way or the other. You can see why this is a problem. If Professors tell their graduate student to vote for ratification when the student wants to vote the other way, then this sets up a dangerous conflict for the student. What can be gained by doing that?
These are our principles with respect to the CUPE 3903 forced ratification vote. They are motions passed unanimously at the YUFA Executive meeting of 12 January 2009:
We recognize the serious problems the strike is causing for the students and for York. We also recognize that the issues of this strike need to be resolved for the future of York University.
- YUFA Executive re-affirms its support of free collective bargaining and does not endorse a ratification vote of CUPE 3903 members as forced by the Employer.
- YUFA Executive strongly urges all YUFA members to respect individual CUPE 3903 members’ rights in the forced ratification vote to vote freely and according to their conscience. We urge all YUFA members to respect CUPE members’ rights to vote freely.
- YUFA Executive, recognizing the power relations implicit in the roles of YUFA members and CUPE 3903 members, does not endorse any YUFA member attempting to influence how a CUPE 3903 member might vote in the forced ratification vote.
This is not a new problem. It's been around for decades and faculty unions in dozens of countries have learned to deal with it by urging individual members to avoid taking sides. I'm surprised that there are nearly 300 retired and active Professors at York University who don't get it.
Some of these faculty members have been writing letters to the editors of various newspapers in defense of their position. Here's one from Bernard Lightman, a Professor of Humanities. It appeared in today's Toronto Star.
Professor Berland has claimed that the open letter by full-time faculty and retirees to striking members of CUPE 3903 is in direct defiance of motions passed by the faculty union's executive. The signees have never claimed to speak on behalf of, or to represent, the faculty union.Let's be clear about one thing. YUFA was offering advice to its members based on decades of experience. The advice was to keep your mouth shut because you are in a position of authority over your graduate student TAs.
Professor Berland interprets the motions of the faculty union's executive as saying that faculty are not free to express their opinions on the strike. I do not believe that that is the correct interpretation. However, if Professor Berland's interpretation were correct, then I would have to defy the faculty union.
It is not the business of a faculty union to gag its own members. One of the most important priorities of a university is to encourage free discussion and expression. That priority is not suspended during a strike, especially when the fate of more than 50,000 students hangs in the balance.
Every Professor has the right to ignore that advice and try to influence the decision of their graduate students. That's what academic freedom is all about. Whether it's a smart thing to do is another question.1 I don't think it is.
Graduate students are smart enough, and mature enough, to make up their own minds. They don't need advice from their supervisors and bosses.
1. It may be illegal as well, but that's another thing entirely. I doubt that any Professor would be prosecuted for pressuring their graduate students unless that Professor holds a prominent administrative position where the potential for retaliation against a student is much more likely.