Alas, Poor York (University) UPDATED

The departing 43rd President of the United States once queried: “Is our children learning?

Unfortunately, if you are a parent who has sent their child to York University, the answer is  a resounding “No.”


Today, while the citizens of the United States are celebrating votes resulting in positive, hopeful change, Canadians may be shaking their heads in puzzlement at a vote that may or may not take place and, as such, perpetuate a situation that is already perceived as having endured much too long: The strike launched back on November 6, 2008 by the union representing York University’s teaching assistants, Local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

To delve into the details of the strike would create a posting of epic length. The background is likely best explored by heading to the comprehensive site York Strike 2008.

But to offer a succinct sketch, yesterday’s Toronto Sun noted that the dispute is centred around “job security for contract staff.” That’s what lead approximately 3,400 “teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty…[into] locking out thousands of students from their classes.”


According to the National Post, the voting by secret ballot might yield results by tomorrow night. But since the offer came from the university’s administration rather than the union’s executive, it has not received tremendous support from CUPE’s members. The union in fact issued a press release for a rally against the passage of the vote.


As far as the strike goes, it’s a PR nightmare all-around. Nobody comes off as blameless.  CUPE seems to be perceived as grasping, especially in an economy where so many people would gladly take-up contract positions with a university.  In turn, the university administration comes off as clueless at best and completely uncaring at worst.

It’s beyond an impasse.  The situation is like a lethal game of chicken between two trucks on a twisty, icy and narrow highway route with the student body  of 50,000 trapped between two crazed drivers hurtling towards each other at ridiculous speeds.

Dagmar Kanzler, a parent of a second year student and recent online activist focused on ending the strike,  emphasized the key point that seems to have been lost in this duel in a recent article in the Toronto Star:

“Both the university and the union have completely lost track of the act that this is all about the students…It’s not about them. It’s about 50,000 people who are just in limbo right now – people whose futures are going to be permanently affected.”


The combatants may have also overlooked the effect that this struggle will have on their own well-being. They may not have just bitten the hand that feeds them but swallowed it to the elbow.

Recently, Ryerson University’s student paper The Eyeopener commented that “Ryerson admissions said the number of inquiries regarding undergraduate transfers from York have greatly increased this year.”

Additionally, the Toronto Star noted that “the number of Ontario high school students picking York University as their first choice for next September is down nearly 15 per cent over this time last year”.

In short, both the union and the university administration may learn a very painful lesson about cooperation — something they should have absorbed in kindergarten — as well as an advanced tutorial in what the poor management of a university’s reputation will yield.

So perhaps the time has truly come for the question at hand to morph into “what are you guys going to do to fix things – and fix them quickly?”

UPDATE: According to the Toronto Star, “the strike at York University will continue after 63 per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903 members rejected the school’s latest offer in a forced vote that ended last night.

Now it becomes a question of whether Ontario’s provincial government will have to step in with “back to work” legislation. (Yes, such a thing exists in Canada. There’s a very good explanation of it by the CBC here.

Now the Globe & Mail’s education reporter Elizabeth Church is reporting that:

York University is considering cutting the size of next year’s freshman class because of the sharp decline in applications for next September, the latest fallout from the strike that has cancelled most classes for 50,000 students since early November.

So it seems that what the university and the union are learning is something that any kindergartener knows: Behave badly and fail to respect your contemporaries, and you’re going to get spanked.


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