Faculty, students call on York to return to bargaining talks amid 'unprecedented' strike

Several student and faculty groups called on York University on Friday to engage in face-to-face meetings to resolve a labour dispute that has lasted more than two months.

Faculty association president accuses York University administration of wanting to break union

Left to right, back row: Terry Maley, External Vice President, York University Faculty Association: Richard Wellen, President, York University Faculty Association; John Cartwright, President of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council; and Chris Buckley, president of Ontario Federation of Labour. Left to right, front row: Alia Karim, vice president campaigns, York University Graduate Student Association; and Manisha Joshi‐Vijayan, undergraduate student. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Faculty and student groups called on York University on Friday to return to the bargaining table to resolve what they say is an "unprecedented" strike that began more than two months ago.

"As you know, the protracted strike at York University has now lasted longer than nine weeks," Richard Wellen, president of the York University Faculty Association, told reporters.

"It has led to feelings of hopelessness and anxiety for many of our students and faculty members. And the depth of these feelings may be greater than those in any previous strike at any Ontario university."

The Liberal government introduced legislation to end the strike through binding arbitration, however unanimous consent was required and the NDP didn't agree before the Ontario legislature was dissolved. The university administration wants arbitration to end the strike.

Wellen said many courses in the fall-winter and winter term are now being threatened and there is a chance that there could be a reduction or full cancellation of the summer term for the first time in York's history. 
York University contract staff and teaching assistants walked off the job on March 5. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Contract staff and teaching assistants, members of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, walked off the job on March 5, and Wellen said they are feeling the brunt of the strike. They do more than half of the teaching at the school.

"It is becoming clearer every day that the major reason for the continuation of this strike is the categorical refusal of the administration and board of governors to bargain with the union."

At issue is job security and benefits. As for wages, the union says it wants a 10.5 per cent wage hike over three years, while the administration says it is prepared to give 6.6 per cent.

Wellen accused university brass of repeatedly blaming the union for the strike and refusing to acknowledge that many items wanted by the union were previously agreed to in bargaining three years ago.

He said many faculty members are concerned that the administration is determined to break the union and is putting that desire ahead of university and student interests. 
Richard Wellen, president of the York University Faculty Association, said the level of disruption, refusal of the administration to bargain and level of public opposition to the university's senior administration are all unprecedented. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Wellen said that the level of disruption, refusal of the administration to bargain and level of public opposition to the university's senior administration are all unprecedented.

"Once again, we call on the York University administration and board of governors to exercise its responsibility to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a fair deal immediately," Wellen said.

The university indicated, in an email sent to CUPE 3903 bargaining teams on Friday, that it is not prepared to return to talks. It says it wants interest arbitration to be used to resolve the strike.

"In the absence of any offer, settlement framework or your proposals so that we may assess these, or any indication that your bargaining teams have any authority or intention to significantly alter positions or agree to interest arbitration on the redline issues, we see no value in engaging," wrote Simon E. Mortimer, a Toronto employment lawyer, on the administration's behalf. 

"Unless you indicate in writing how your positions have substantially changed and/or that interest arbitration is now acceptable, we remain at an impasse." 
Manisha Joshi‐Vijayan, an undergraduate student at York University, says: 'The university has done everything it can to undermine the union, including sacrificing the quality of education and mental health of its undergraduate students.'

Other speakers at the news conference said the university is destroying public confidence in York University as a post-secondary institution by refusing to engage in talks.

Alia Karim, a vice president with the York University Graduate Student Association (YUGSA), which represents about 6,000 graduate students, said the administration has shown "very little effort" to bargain in good faith, has created "confusion and chaos" at the school and put "undue stress and frustration" on students.

​"Students are being pressured to cross picket lines and many have said they are afraid to talk to their professors and program administrators because they are being pressured to complete course assignments and degree requirements while the strike is ongoing," she said at the news conference.

​"Students don't deserve to be put under this pressure and they don't deserve to have their education compromised."

'Crisis of governance'

Manisha Joshi‐Vijayan, an undergraduate student at York, said the administration has created a "segregated learning environment" by refusing to cancel classes at the university during the strike, with some students crossing picket lines and others refusing to do so.

Joshi‐Vijayan said there is a "crisis of governance" at the root of the problems now facing the university.

"The university has done everything it can to undermine the union, including sacrificing the quality of education and mental health of its undergraduate students," she said.

Other groups calling for the administration to return to the bargaining table include the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).