Monday, January 19, 2009

When TAs Go on Strike

 
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.

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.
What I'm mostly interested in is the graduate students in Units 1 & 3.

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.

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.”
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 York University Faculty Association (YUFA) issued a press release today in which they reiterated their position.
Press Release

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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
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.
The 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?

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.

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.
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.

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.

16 comments :

  1. Strikes are always divisive, I know, but this one at York has been particularly ugly. As a faculty member, I'm most concerned about our undergraduates, who are the ones who are bearing the brunt of this strike. While I did not sign the open letter to CUPE urging them to accept the agreement, I did sign a previous motion to YUFA requesting a neutral stance (and, as such, have been the recipient of artistically designed, vaguely threatening anonymous emails, not to mention the obvious disdain of YUFA members who argue "Solidarity above all". I suppose I may be flamed here, too.)

    I would be happy to never hear the term "solidarity" again. Is there any action that Union A can take that Union B would not condone? I work at an institution that is supposed to encourage critical thinking, good citizenship, and integrity ... What do I do if a "sister" union's actions/demands seem to contravene all of those values, and in some ways, to undermine the very quality of the institution where I serve? (Aside from my support for the request for YUFA neutrality, and a donation to the Undergraduate Student Hardship Fund, I've done nothing. I feel incredibly frustrated and impotent as I watch these events unfold.)

    CUPE 3903 has been vehemently urging their members to vote "No", and their website indicates that they plan to surround the voting area to reinforce this message. (This isn't allowed in a political election - why is it allowed for this kind of vote? I know some grad students are intimidated by the more militant members of their union, which may make them less likely to run that gauntlet and vote.) Those faculty members who are anguished to see what this strike is doing to their undergraduates and the York Community are vilified for presenting a well-reasoned rationale to CUPE 3903 members for voting "Yes".

    Is it ethical for faculty members to urge TAs/GAs/sessionals to vote a particular way? I don't know, and I do have some discomfort with the idea. But I do know that there seems to be very little else a concerned faculty member can do in this no-win situation.

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  2. Why does York have such vexed labour relations while U of T and Ryerson (and most other universities in the province, for that matter) have much better labour relations?

    Perhaps York should emulate the labour relations practices of other Ontario institutions.

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  3. Tanya Noel says,

    As a faculty member, I'm most concerned about our undergraduates, who are the ones who are bearing the brunt of this strike.

    I'm sure the vast majority of faculty members share your concern.

    However, your concern seems to have motivated you to prefer one side of the disagreement over the other side. You haven't explained why you hold the TAs responsible and not the administration.

    Did you consider signing an open letter to the President and Chancellor of the University urging them to accept the union's demands?

    I work at an institution that is supposed to encourage critical thinking, good citizenship, and integrity ... What do I do if a "sister" union's actions/demands seem to contravene all of those values, and in some ways, to undermine the very quality of the institution where I serve?

    Isn't it obvious? What you do is explain why the demands of CUPE 3903 contravene critical thinking, good citizenship, and integrity while the administration's actions do not.

    Waiting ....

    Is it ethical for faculty members to urge TAs/GAs/sessionals to vote a particular way?

    No. In my opinion it is unethical for faculty members to attempt to influence the vote.

    I don't know, and I do have some discomfort with the idea. But I do know that there seems to be very little else a concerned faculty member can do in this no-win situation.

    Sometimes doing nothing is the best course of action, especially in no-win situations.

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  4. Larry, have you seen CUPE 3903's demands? I can certainly comment on several of the ones that I think are not reasonable, but you may want to look at them yourself - as well as the most recent offer from the university. (I don't know what the status is of the CUPE 3902 negotiations with U of T administration, but they may be looking at what happens with CUPE 3903 when they go into bargaining.)

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  5. Tanya Noel says

    "have you seen CUPE 3903's demands? I can certainly comment on several of the ones that I think are not reasonable . . ."

    Could you explain why CUPE 3903 is demanding "an end to the Student Code of Conduct"? Is this a reasonable request?

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  6. Tanya Noel says,

    Larry, have you seen CUPE 3903's demands? I can certainly comment on several of the ones that I think are not reasonable, but you may want to look at them yourself - as well as the most recent offer from the university.

    Like you, I am also able to comment on which of the union's demands I think are reasonable and on which of the administrations demands I think are reasonable. Furthermore, since I know a little bit about such negotiations, I know that neither side expects to get everything they ask for. Such is the nature of bargaining and picking out "unreasonable" opening positions isn't very useful.

    What I wouldn't do, if I were at York, is try and tell graduate students how they should vote.

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  7. The larger question, of course, concerns York's long, long history of vexed labour relations.

    Those vexed labour relations appear to arise in a kind of positive feedback loop. An ultra-militant CUPE local driven by ideology faces an intransigent, management with a "my way or the highway" mentality; the situation escalates and becomes permanently intractable. Other Ontario universities have managed to avoid the kind of "permanent revolution" that afflicts York and its unfortunate undergraduate students.

    Perhaps the province should place York into trusteeship and appoint a management team from outside that isn't burdened by delusions of its own greatness? But that won't de-ideologize the union locals there. So maybe the answer is for the province to impose binding artibtration in the current circumstances and then step in to reorganized York on new lines. It isn't just the ideologists in CUPE who are disgruntled. Many York faculty members (other than those who belong to the contending factions) are dissatisfied with the way the place works and is organized.

    On an even broader scale, the province should take proactive steps to study the status of TAs and contract faculty in the context of our "innovation" agenda. Aren't we placing too much of a burden on junior academics? Shouldn't we be ensuring that almost every new Ontario PhD can get permanent work in a university or college on graduation? How does creating an enormous underclass of itinerant teachers benefit the people of the province socially, economically, culturally or technologically? Would we turn out thousands more MDs or engineers a year who were foredoomed to be excluded from their professions?

    York is a problem in itself, of course, but there are larger issues that should be addressed on a provincial and national scale -- if we are serious about an innovation agenda.

    Put it this way: if the Ontario and Canadian governments are serious about innovation it is time to bring the era of the wandering post-doc to a close.

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  8. To the anonymous comment, I don't see how ensuring every PhD in Ontario gets an academic job is in any way realistic or something desirable. Not every PhD turned out is academic material, which is not a comment on their intelligence or work ethic but a comment on the nature of academia. Moreover, more PhD's get employed outside of academia due to outside demand and (relative) lack of demand within academia.

    Speaking of demand then, I think it's understandable why York University would employ a large pool of "itinerant workers," as such a pool makes it economically viable to teach large bloated undergraduate classes. If you have to point to an ultimate reason for this strike, in my opinion, it would be massive undergraduate enrollment.

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  9. Dunbar,

    Yes, exploitation of TAs and wandering post-PhDs does make it cheaper for universities to provide a lower quality education to more undergraduates.

    Obviously there is some demand from industry for PhDs. That should indeed become part of labour market regulation and education planning. (We can do it for doctors, lawyers and engineers, so why not for PhDs?) The PhD is a professional program unlike any other in the world. You can have no assurance that you will actually be able to work in your profession after spending many years acquiring the qualification!

    We hear constantly about the importance of innovation and then we tell grad students to "take your chances" when investing a larger portion of their lives in becoming innovators. That's dumb.

    The shameless use of large numbers of semi-qualified grad students to "teach cheap" and the exploitation of post-docs is wrong (unethical) in itself, technologically and culturally backward and completely contrary to the stated aims of government policy with respect to innovation.

    The system is badly broken and needs to be fixed, notwithstanding the special circumstances at York, which may require specific remedies.

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  10. anonymous says,

    The PhD is a professional program unlike any other in the world.

    Ph.D. programs are not "professional programs."

    I know it's easy to get confused when some of the people in the programs don't understand this, but that's really not a very good excuse.

    Think about those who get Ph.D.s in Music, English, or Philosophy. What kind of "professional program" are they being trained for? The vast majority will never be academics and that doesn't diminish the value of the learning experience.

    Get a Ph.D. because you want to learn and have fun. If you're doing it because you think the degree will guarantee that you get a good paying job, then you're making a big mistake.

    If that's the case then you should be in a real professional program like law, dentistry, nursing, medicine, or engineering. Even better, enrol in a trade apprenticeship program. They are very successful at training people to do a specific job.

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  11. Prof. Moran's argument is unconvincing. A PhD in English is a professional qualification to teach in a university or college and to comment on literature and other aspects of communications and culture. It isn't a hobby or pastime. It is just too convenient for tenured faculty members to "define" PhD programs in so cavalier and expedient a manner. As I'm sure Prof. Moran knows well, one needn't undertake a PhD to read deeply in a certain subject; anyone with the interest, time and inclination can do that. The PhD is a formal qualification for entry into a profession. Do we admit candidates to training in medical specialties on the expectation that they will never work in the field? Of course not.

    Exploiting post-docs and TAs (while there are appropriate distinctions to be made between those two groups) is both wrong and bad public policy.

    Technological, cultural and social innovation, the bedrock of economic development, absolutely demand institutional innovation--new thinking about the role of pre- and post-docs in our universities and beyond. Thorough reform in the area of graduate education and professional employment is fundamental.

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  12. From the Jan. 23 Toronto Star:

    "Job security for professors on short-term contracts, full-time openings for part-time faculty, length of contracts and more funding for graduate students are the key issues the two sides have not been able to agree on."

    These are the issues at York and they are the issues for the entire "University of Ontario" system and its individual campuses
    across the province.

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  13. Re the York University strike:

    1) Members of the Ontario legislature have every right to subject the bill to scrutiny and, possibly, amendment.

    2) The issues for York and for the "University of Ontario" system are quite clear: "Job security for professors on short-term contracts, full-time openings for part-time faculty, length of contracts and more funding for graduate students" (Toronto Star).

    When the York strike is over the issues will remain, not just for York but for the U of O system and all of its various campuses (a.k.a universities). The U of T system itself is apparently incapable of dealing with the issues equitably and adequately. The provincial government should therefore introduce legislation to correct the situation and to advance the "innovation agenda" by favouring the young, creative and untenure-tracked over the old guard.

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  14. Correction:

    "U of O", not U of T ... that node is just one of many in the system....

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  15. anonymous says,

    The issues for York and for the "University of Ontario" system are quite clear: "Job security for professors on short-term contracts, full-time openings for part-time faculty, length of contracts and more funding for graduate students" (Toronto Star).

    I'm not in favor of hiring Professors on short term contracts. They should all have a full-time job.

    Fortunately my university has not embraced the concept of part-time faculty so it's not as much of a problem as at other universities. What we need is tenure-stream teaching positions. We have them, but they're called Lecturers. At McMaster they are Professors and so they should be.

    The provincial government should therefore introduce legislation to correct the situation and to advance the "innovation agenda" by favouring the young, creative and untenure-tracked over the old guard.

    There's no evidence to support the claim that those who failed to secure a tenure-stream position are more creative than those who succeeded.

    Also, with the possible exceptions of mathematics and physics, there's no evidence showing that young people are more creative than older Professors with tenure.

    Let me remind you that ageism is as much a from of bigotry as sexism and homophobia.

    Any provincial legislation that interferes with the autonomy of the universities is likely to provoke strikes across the province.

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  16. Prof. Moran,


    Re York etc.: See Margaret Wente's column in the Jan. 29 Globe. She gets it pretty much right.

    There is a large problem with the way Ontario universities exploit post-docs. It does need to be addressed. It has needed to be addressed for a long time. The universities can't or won't do it, so the province should.

    The problem with exploited post-docs is rather like the problem of the ratio of still very unfair and damaging ratio of female to male professors in the tenure-stream and tenured jobs. For decades (DECADES!) the universities have been saying they will bring about equality for females and males in these jobs. But (to paraphrase Ignatieff contra Dion) YOU DIDN'T GET THE JOB DONE!

    Women are still kept out. It is absolutely outrageous. Like exploiting young PhDs, this injustice hurts education and research in Ontario and Canada!

    Sometimes, when institutions won't act, the province must, in the public interest and in the interest of justice. (Your university is the outcome of just such an act in 1849 to create the secular University of Toronto!) The cases of contract post-docs and equality for women in the academy are two glaring examples.

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