Back to School at York U

After 78 days of strike havoc, the picket lines have come down and classes resumed this week at York University. Graduate assistants, teaching assistants (TAs), and contract faculty won important concessions from the administration, including tuition protection, health benefits, and an increase in the number of renewable contracts. Some resentment still lingered, however, among undergraduates who had to wait out the strike and now face an accelerated schedule for the remainder of the semester. With their existing collective bargaining agreement due to expire in April 2001, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)--the union representing 2100 York University TAs, contract faculty, and graduate assistants--initiated talks with the university last July. The university met with CUPE3903 for 20 bargaining sessions and then the university tabled a "fair and reasonable" Offer of Settlement on October 20. The members of CUPE3903 rejected the offer a week later, starting a protracted strike on October 26.

Eleven weeks of additional negotiations produced a new proposal, which was almost unanimously approved by teaching and graduate assistants on January 11. Now that the strike is officially over, York's 33,000 students can return to classes for the first time since October last year.

The precedent-setting agreement contained a little something for everyone. TAs secured an agreement that protects them from the tuition rollbacks planned by York administration and ensuring that if tuition rises, they will be compensated in the form of a tuition rebate. Graduate assistants won health benefits, summer funding, and wage increases amounting to 2% annually over the next 2 years. The graduate assistants were also successful in securing a rebate which mirrors the tuition increases planned for the next 2 years, in spite of the university's argument that rebates for some graduate students and not others was unfair. In addition to the wage increases and tuition breaks, the teaching and graduate assistants secured extensions of academic deadlines and terms of study, and protection of community members and research/graduate assistants who were not official members of the bargaining unit, but who may have participated in the strike.

A collective agreement was also reached between the York administration and contract faculty for improved job security. Contract faculty, considered an "exploited group of workers" by York University Faculty Association (YUFA) representative Lorna Erwin, achieved an increase from six conversions and special renewable contracts in the second year to 10. YUFA urged its members to support the TA strike, in return for the support that TAs and students provided 3 years ago during a faculty strike over retirement provisions.

Although the workers were happy with the new agreement, the strike left bitter feelings among the undergraduates. "I think that many students feel that we have been caught in the middle of a precedent-setting argument between CUPE 3903 and the university, where neither side was willing to budge and both were behaving badly," one undergraduate student at York University told Next Wave. "This strike has damaged the faith that students have in the university, and post-secondary education in general," she says. And undergraduate students now face the arduous task of catching up on 22 days of lost lecture time.

Both sides are working to repair the damage. "Of concern to the York community now that the strike has ended is the welfare of the students, academic integrity, and the university's reputation," said Erwin, noting that a facilitator had been brought in by the administration to deal with the reconciliation process. With the fall term extended to February 12, the university is promising to maintain standards for receiving academic credits, in addition to treating students fairly regardless of what may have happened during the disruption. York University is also providing additional services to students in need of academic and financial advice and assistance, according to Deborah Hobson, vice president of enrollment and student services.

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