Lessons from the CUPE 3902/3903 Strikes at UofT and York

Lessons from the CUPE 3902/3903 Strikes at UofT and York

The most important demand made by the striking workers at York had to do with preserving “tuition indexation”-the union demanded that the university index any increase in tuition for incoming graduate students with an equal increase in funding. This would ensure that gains in funding won by the union would not be eroded by tuition hikes for future students.

The striking workers at UofT demanded a rise in their standard funding packages from $15,000 per year to $23,298, Toronto’s before-tax poverty line. Despite having had an income surplus totalling $194 million over the last year, the administration at UofT has insisted that it sees nothing wrong with its graduate students living in poverty. Throughout much of the strike, UofT refused to even bargain with its striking workers. Seeing little movement on the part of the employer, those on strike ended up voting to send contract negotiations to binding arbitration through the province. It is not yet clear what kind of contract will be fashioned through the arbitration process.

Strikes are often talked about as inspiring events-ones that lead to the formation of collective identities, create a heightened political consciousness and make it seem as if social transformation may in fact be possible. Such things, strikes certainly can be. But they can just as well be of the opposite sort. While strikes no doubt serve as occasions for fostering cohesion within unions and for encouraging politicization, they also offer plenty of opportunity for divisions to flourish and for disillusionment to set in. And they can be responsible for promoting anaemic, sectional, reformist attitudes rather than transformational ones.

Usually, of course, strikes tend to lead to mixed results. The strikes at both UofT and York were no doubt of this kind. The fact that large numbers of striking workers were pushed to put collective self-organization into action, and to adopt a transformational outlook, is a noteworthy outcome. But the internal and external pressures which counteract the positive momentum created by these strikes must be kept in mind when the matter of building on this momentum is being considered. Sober assessments need to be made of the possibilities for furthering and broadening the achievements, as well as overcoming the disappointments and failures, of particular strikes. 

Building a protracted challenge to neoliberalism

Although the key issues differed in the two strikes, both were responses to the ongoing neoliberal restructuring of universities. In classic neoliberal fashion, the burden for financing post-secondary education is increasingly being placed on individuals, rather than being carried by society as a whole. Over the course of the last three decades, the revenue Ontario universities can count on from government funding has fallen from about 80 percent to 46 percent. Tuition fees have skyrocketed to make up the shortfall. In the last decade alone tuition fees in Ontario have risen by 370 percent. On average Ontario undergraduate students now pay $7,539 in tuition every year.  For many, this means accruing giant amounts of debt: a university education in Ontario results in an average debt of $37,000.

At this point in time in Ontario, fashioning a movement that can pose a serious challenge to the neoliberalization of the university-not to mention all other aspects of life-is a project that will take years if not decades to come to fruition. Most of the work will not be in the form of partaking in confrontations like strikes, as important as these may be.

A large part of the effort will involve reworking the ways in which we organize. Ultimately, we are tasked with overcoming the workshop and protest models of activism that have become entrenched in our time. Rather than continuing to just rely on sporadic flare-ups to create change, we are called on to construct institutional forms that can deliver protracted challenges to power in pushing for progressive change.

The role of unions

What is to be the role of unions in all of this? At present, unions for the most part function as vehicles to promote the sectional interests of their members. Beyond this, their chief contribution to the cause of movement-building involves donating funds to grassroots groups working largely within the confines of the workshop and protest models. This needs to be rethought. Unions should certainly continue using their resources to support cash-strapped grassroots groups, but they also need to create more substantive, solidaristic linkages with such groups-of the kind that encourage both unions and grassroots groups to move beyond their respective limited horizons.

Securing this kind of shift on the part of unions will not be easy. Most union bureaucracies will not readily avail themselves to push for anything more than mildly progressive societal reforms. It is also the case, however, that unions are substantively democratic institutions and organized efforts by the membership can create meaningful internal reform.

During the strike at York, the union rank-and-file demonstrated that they could effectively mobilize against constant efforts by the local and national union leadership to thwart the organizing of a successful strike. The majority of the local executive was determined throughout to end the strike as quickly as possible, whether or not a desirable settlement had been reached. Rank-and-file members saw to it, despite the efforts of the leadership, that a successful fight be carried out. 

There are also lessons to be learned from the victorious strike at York with regards to building a solidaristic outlook.

In demanding tuition indexation the striking graduate students were struggling not on their own behalf, but on behalf of those who would eventually take their place. Undergraduate students at York did not fail to notice this. Large numbers of them organized in solidarity with their TAs, and several thousand signed a petition saying they would not cross the picket line to attend class while the strike was ongoing.

Organizing on the part of the undergraduate students was crucial to the success of the strike (and so was, it should be noted, the effort on the part of Faculty to oppose the resumption of classes). But it is not just the case that the solidaristic linkages established during the strike helped it to succeed. Efforts to build on and broaden the momentum created by the strike will necessarily involve leaning on and further strengthening such linkages. “Solidarity forever,” then, is not just a union song one belts out while on the picket line. It also happens to be a slogan that should guide us long after the picket line has been taken down.

Umair Muhammad is a member of CUPE 3903 and a grassroots organizer in Toronto’s Jane-Finch community