Lessons of the York University Strike

Against the Current, No. 71, November/December 1997

David McNally

FOR TWO MONTHS last spring, the faculty union at York University in Toronto waged Canada’s longest-ever strike at an English-speaking university. In the process, members of the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) discovered the deeply transforming power of collective action and rebuilt their union as a progressive and activist part of the labor movement. While the YUFA strike might be seen as a fairly small case, it nevertheless offers some lessons in how unions can organize effectively in a climate of downsizing and work restructuring.

Like many unions, YUFA had for years been pushed around by a management that treated its collective agreement as a nuisance. So brazen had management’s contempt for the union become that in the summer of 1996 it unilaterally abrogated YUFA’s contract and imposed its own “terms and conditions of employment.”

Sensing that the union was weak and dispirited, the York administration sought to engage in blatant contract stripping. Without intending it, however, they had struck out on a path which would provoke a strike and initiate the revitalization of the union.

After a year of fruitless negotiations and contract-stripping, a solid majority of YUFA’s 1000 members walked off the job on March 20 after a seventy-one percent strike vote. Yet, most YUFA members entered the strike with great apprehension, feeling they had been pushed to take job action by an aggressive and intransigent employer.

This defensive state of mind quickly changed when picket lines went up. To the amazement of all concerned, the union mounted strong, spirited pickets and brought most teaching at the university to a halt. In the forefront on the picket lines were people who had been largely marginal to the union–young teachers, women and people of color. As people like this started to run the strike on the ground, new issues came to the fore, new activists were created, and the transformation of a union was launched.

For many years YUFA had been held together by a dedicated but small old-guard, veterans of battles from the 1970s and 1980s. Very few young people played an active role in the union, and this was especially true of younger women and people of color. The old guard of the union had little appreciation of the issues, such as workload and pay equity, that most mattered to people like this.

But all of this changed once the picket lines went up. As women, people of color and younger teachers walked picket lines, packed union meetings and spoke out vigorously in support of the strike they began the remaking of their union. And this gave great weight to the work of a small number of left-wing activists in the union who were pushing for priority to be given to “equity issues”–equal pay for women teachers, equity in pensions, and pension benefits for same-sex partners in particular.

From the start, the strike organization on the ground tried to draw dozens and dozens of people into active work–organizing pickets and rallies, writing for the strike bulletin, producing leaflets, and so on. Solid picket lines, regular strike rallies, a daily strike bulletin and weekly mass membership meetings of 500-700 people galvanized the YUFA membership, as did strong support from other unions and progressive student organizations whose members regularly joined YUFA’s lines.

As a result, rather than crumbling after the first week or two as management expected and many strikers feared, the strike became more solid as time went by. And this increasing support for the strike owed much to the way its demands became more radical over the course of the first four weeks. Under the combined impact of rank and file activism and the concrete efforts of a small number of (predominantly younger) activists on the union Executive, equity issues came increasingly to the forefront of the strike.

At a particularly crucial moment four weeks into the strike, a mass meeting of nearly 700 strikers overwhelmingly supported a motion from the radicals on the union Executive calling for equity demands to receive priority at the bargaining table. As a sea of hundreds upon hundreds of hands went up in support of the motion – to the accompaniment of cheers and rousing applause – it was clear that the strike would not be broken and that a union was being transformed. As one philosophy teacher put it the next day, “our union was reborn through equity.” While it would be several more weeks before a settlement was reached, it was clear that management had failed in its effort to cripple the union.

Unions and the Just-in-Time University

At the root of the YUFA strike is a concerted campaign by university administrators to radically reorganize the way our work is done. In a context of declining public funding of higher education (government grants account for over 80 per cent of all funds in Canadian universities), administrators are turning to new classroom technologies, “long-distance learning” (i.e. courses on the internet), and new arrangements with private industry (for a price, companies can now have their corporate logo attached to an internet course, for example).

But in the process, administrators are coming into collision with unionized teachers and their collective agreements. Administrators want a “lean” and “flexible” teaching staff that can be shuttled in and out of courses according to demand, forced to teach on the internet, required to teach ever larger classes and virtual classes, and so on. They want a “just-in-time” university where customized courses can be produced at a moment’s notice in response to market demand by the “clients”–students who buy commodities called courses and corporations prepared to invest funds in them. By restricting administrators’ ability to dictate class sizes, teaching loads and working conditions, union agreements constitute a roadblock on the route to the lean university driven by the “effective demands” of the market.

Yet, YUFA’s strike demonstrated that there is no need to be fatalistic about management’s drive to restructure and reorganize work. The union held firm to its insistence that no new technologies could be forced upon any instructor without union agreement–and won. Similarly, while the strike was largely defensive in nature, the union made some gains on pay equity for women and on an issue that hadn’t been on the bargaining table when the strike began: pension benefits for same-sex partners.

Division on the Left

While the YUFA strike brought together large sections of a union membership which had been largely atomized and fragmented, it also produced a sharp division within the academic left. York University is home to a significant number of leftist intellectuals. To the surprise of many, however, several prominent leftists opposed the strike. Arguing that the university and its administration were “progressive,” that management should not be blamed for the effects of government cutbacks to higher education, and that the strike would only benefit older members of the union, they tried to construct an anti-strike position with a progressive veneer.

This produced the sometimes bizarre spectacle of various left academics railing against strike action–even as that strike clearly became more radical in character–and in some cases engaging in outright union-bashing. The anti-strike pronouncements of these left academics were met with growing hostility, especially by women, members of color, and younger activists–the very groups
the anti-strike leftists claimed to support. The fact that most of the left intellectuals who opposed the strike have close associations with senior administrators produced widespread cynicism about their ostensibly “progressive” motivations.

Fortunately, a core group of left activists–socialists, femininsts and anti-racists–strongly supported the strike. And by pushing equity issues forward, they found a basis for connecting the issues of the strike with progressive politics. The result was the growing isolation of a certain status quo leftism, alongside increased support for an activist leftism which focussed on challenging administrative power, not collaborating with it.

The Struggle Continues

More than any contract gains, the rebuilding of the union was the biggest gain of the YUFA strike. Our union is now much more strongly positioned for the battles of the coming years. At the same time, it would be naive to think that our eight weeks on the picket line have decisively driven back the university administration. Management offensives against union rights are backed by a vigorously anti-labor government in Ontario. The Ontario Tories have rolled back a number of recent reforms to the labor law which made union organization and certification easier. They have launched a slash and burn program which is chopping billions from healthcare, education, and welfare programs and cutting tens of thousands of jobs. And, while having backed off recently from a major confrontation with hundreds of thousands of public employees, they seem intent on gutting collective agreements and union rights for teachers at all levels of the education system. For the moment, they have set their sights on elementary and secondary school teachers. But unions at colleges and universities may well be next on the Tory hit list.

At the same time as they deal with the challenges of an anti-union offensive by government, YUFA activists are also realizing that the struggle to transform their union is far from over. While the YUFA membership was radicalized by its strike and has elected a quite progressive new Executive, there are powerfully conservative forces in the union who would like to return to the cozy kind of relationship with administrators that once existed. These individuals are deeply suspicious of those of us who led the strike, and most unhappy that an active women’s caucus, equity committee and a newly-formed anti-racist caucus have grown up as lasting products of the strike.

On top of this, the union still has much work to do to build active solidarity with other unions–both on and off campus–and with students. Solidarity was crucial to maintaining the morale of members throughout the eight-week strike. Messages of support and financial contributions poured in from unions on university campuses throughout North America. Most noteworthy were the donation by the teachers union at Laval University (which had waged a three month strike of French-speaking teachers twenty years earlier) of $5000 per week to the YUFA strike fund, the work of a small but boisterous “Students Supporting the Faculty Strike” committee which bolstered picket lines, and the flying solidarity pickets mounted by the teaching assistants’ union. While continuing progress is being made in the direction of building active solidarity (YUFA had a contingent for the first time ever at Toronto’s 15,000 strong Labor Day march this year), there is an enormous amount of work to be done to prepare for the battles ahead.

Nevertheless, the YUFA strike served as a small example of the possibilities for rebuilding even quite weak unions through strikes which are waged in a militant, democratic and participatory fashion. As education is subjected to the same drive to restructure work that has swept much of private industry, it is essential that education workers build fighting unions to withstand the onslaught. The YUFA strike also showed how vital it is that socialist activists work to bring together all the progressive people in the union around an agenda of militant activism, social equality and democratic unionism. Our achievements in this regard have been modest but real. And as the t-shirts we wore as we returned to work proclaim in four languages: the struggle continues.

ATC 71, November-December 1997