21 days into strike, York University says both sides are still 'far apart'

It’s been 21 days since dozens of York University contract staff and teaching assistants walked off the job in frustration over the university's wages and benefits offer, and both sides are holding different positions about how to break the deadlock.

University says it’s prepared to go to binding arbitration but CUPE 3903 is not

Contract faculty and teaching assistants at York University walked off the job on March 5. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

It's been 21 days since dozens of York University contract staff and teaching assistants walked off the job in frustration over the university's wages and benefits offer, and both sides are holding different positions about how to break the deadlock.

Late last week, a group of students began holding a campus sit-in to show solidarity with CUPE 3903 — the union representing contract staff that's been unable to reach a deal with the school after weeks of talks.

As the strike continues, Barbara Joy, the school's director of media relations said Monday that there is still no end in sight.

"Right now the two sides are quite far apart," Joy told CBC Toronto.

Joy said the university made an effort last week to go back to the table and sit down with the union to work through some solutions to press forward.

"Unfortunately the position they came back to the table with are still significantly beyond the reach of the university from a monetary and non-monetary perspective," Joy said.

"We do have some thoughts around how to get a deal and end the strike quickly and that's why we're offering to go to binding arbitration to have a third party who is neutral decide on those tough issues that are still outstanding."

Barbara Joy, York University’s Director Media Relations said Monday there's still no end in sight to 21-day strike. (CBC)

But this would require the agreement of both sides and CUPE 3903 says it does not believe this is the route to take.

In fact, chairperson of CUPE 3903 Devin Lefebvre said it's the right of workers across the country to bargain collectively.

He adds that it is clear that in the education sector in particular, binding arbitration has not proved a successful way of reaching agreement.

Lefebvre also disagrees with the university's position that both sides are far apart.

A group of York University undergraduate students began holding a campus sit-in last week to show solidarity with CUPE 3903. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

"We really don't see it that way. We were able when we last met two weeks ago to make substantive movements. We agreed with them on a number of proposals, we withdrew a number of proposals and we submitted a number of counter proposals."

Lefebvre said CUPE 3903 also sees a path forward to end the strike quickly.

"We've shown that we are able to make movement at the table when the university, however briefly, has chosen to engage with us. And we just feel that the university needs to see that this is the way forward and that we can actually reach settlement in this way."

Campus sit-in continues

As the strike drags on, some undergraduate students decided to stage a sit-in in the university's senate chamber late last week as a way to express their frustration with the ongoing deadlock.

"At this point we are not asking the undergraduate students who organized the sit-in to leave. They are staying and continuing to do what they have been doing," Joy told CBC Toronto.

"We are asking non-community members, so those persons from outside the university community as well as those CUPE members who are currently on strike not to be in the senate chambers this morning and going forward."

In a statement over the weekend, Joy said while the university is mindful that some CUPE 3903 members are also graduate students, there are legal picket lines in the case of a strike, and it is not acceptable for CUPE 3903 members to participate in a sit-in to make demands regarding labour relations.

Karmah Dudin says the sit-in is about democratizing the York University campus. (Mary Webster/CBC)

York University says 55 per cent of its classes are running and there are thousands of students who are choosing to continue to learn and who want to finish their school year or graduate as they initially planned.

But the undergraduate students, who have been staging the sit-in since 5 p.m. on Thursday, are concerned that the school's administration is not taking them seriously, including their demand for a cancellation of all classes.

"We want classes to be cancelled, otherwise academic integrity isn't maintained, and then it's a question of equity," Carrie Cooper told CBC Toronto.

"So, some students, their classes aren't running but some classes are so not everyone's getting a fair right to their education and it's different across the board."

"With the cancellation of classes it would allow more pressure on York to take bargaining more seriously," Cooper added.

Another student, Karmah Dudin, says democracy is lacking on the campus.

"This is really about democratizing this campus; it's run by a lot of corporate interests," Dudin told CBC Toronto.

"There's no consultation with the community, with the students, with the workers who actually run this campus and we're trying to reclaim a space and saying, 'Hey, we all have a voice here; we should be consulted with all these decisions,'" she added.