Striking York contract staff to hit the picket lines on Tuesday

Striking York University contract staff and teaching assistants will take to the picket lines Tuesday amid their latest labour dispute with the school that shows no sign of reaching a conclusion.

Members of CUPE 3903 voted to reject university's latest offer and talks broke down Friday

CUPE 3903 members and their supporters rally outside York University on Monday, the first day of their strike. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Striking York University contract staff and teaching assistants will take to the picket lines Tuesday amid their latest labour dispute with the school that shows no sign of reaching a conclusion.

Striking workers will be picketing "all around campus" between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., according to a news release from CUPE.

Devin Lefebvre, chair of CUPE 3903, said Monday the union was willing to return to the bargaining table over the weekend, but the university refused.

"We're sorry that this is happening. We had hoped to reach a settlement, but York had other plans," Lefebvre told reporters at Queen's Park, adding: "Our working conditions are your learning conditions."

On Friday, contract faculty, teaching assistants, graduate assistants and research assistants voted overwhelmingly to reject the university's latest offer. CUPE 3903 represents about 3,000 of these workers at York.

The two sides have been at the bargaining table for six months.

Initially, the union put forward a list of more than 100 demands, many of which it acknowledges York included in its latest offer.

However, there are three outstanding issues that the union wants to see addressed, Lefebvre said: job security for contract faculty, accessibility and equity in the workplace, and stable and predictable graduate studies funding.

Striking workers marched outside the university's main gate Monday morning, chanting: "What's disgusting? Union busting," and "What's outrageous? Poverty wages."

Undergraduate student Olivia Horzempa shows her support for striking CUPE members during their rally on Monday. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Maija Duncan, communications officer for the union, told CBC Toronto at the rally that a lot of what the union is asking for is not about money.

For instance, contract faculty sometimes learn just weeks or days ahead if they will be teaching in the upcoming semester, she said.

"A lot of people here have been teaching at York for five, 10, 20 years, and they still need to reapply for their jobs every semester," she said.

Fourth-year student Olivia Horzempa showed up at the rally Monday to show support for the union.

"I think that students need to recognize the important work that contract faculty carries out here at York University," she told CBC.

Teaching assistant Yasir Hameed said while workers like him are concerned about job security, he is worried about his wages, too. He makes about $1,735 per month, which is "barely enough to cover rent and everything else." 

He's also concerned about not having funding in order to survive the summer months.

"The larger issue is how academia is becoming a precarious employment option for people," he told CBC.

Teaching assistant Yasir Hameed said academia is becoming a "precarious employment option." (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

School seeking counter-proposal

Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor at York University, said Monday that the union's initial list of 100-plus demands represented a 56 per cent hike in costs for the school over the current contract.

The latest offer from York, presented to the union on March 1, was its "best offer," Lenton told CBC Radio's Metro Morning. The school expected a counter-proposal, but got another lengthy list of demands, she said.

"So what we need to see really is a counter-proposal now at this point that would indicate a basis for settlement," Lenton said.

A counter-proposal is required for York to return to talks, she said.

The latest offer from York, presented to the union on March 1, was its 'best offer,' says Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor at York University. (CBC News)

Over the weekend, the university issued a statement saying its offer included improved benefits, stronger equity language, pay increases, more teaching opportunities and improved job security. It also said that health benefits, vacation pay, professional development funds and childcare funds had all been increased.

The school has also offered to go to arbitration on the union's major issues. Lefebvre said Monday arbitration does not replace negotiation.

"We want York to come back to the bargaining table and end this," he said.

'Not a lot of respect for this process'

Lina Nasr, a PhD student and member of the CUPE 3903 bargaining team, said the union has narrowed down its list to 20 key issues. She acknowledged that the university has responded to many of the "smaller issues" from the larger list of demands, but said things like job security remain a priority for the union.

York PhD student and member of the CUPE 3903 bargaining team, Lina Nasr, says the university doesn't have respect for the bargaining process. (CBC)

"We went into these negotiations expecting that York would be willing to move forward on a lot of these issues with us," Nasr told Metro Morning.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen is not a lot of respect for this process, not a lot of respect for our members."

Despite the strike, the school remains open and classes will continue. CUPE representatives said student learning will be affected, given that 60 per cent of teaching at the school is done by its members.

"Remedies will be provided for students to complete their year if their classes are cancelled or they cannot or do not want to cross a picket line; libraries, student services, athletic facilities, restaurants and other food services, and administration offices will continue to be available to students," the university's weekend statement read.

Asked to address students who fear losing their semester due to the labour disruption, Lenton said the school has never been in a situation where students were unable to graduate.

"We are doing everything we can to minimize the impact of this labour disruption on our students and we are going to be paying very close attention to any particular issues around graduating students, around students who have other types of commitments," she said.

With files from Metro Morning and Desmond Brown