The Battle of York

Historically, this union has been one the most combative in the university sector. Through many struggles over the years – and, most notably, a victorious strike in 2000-2001 – it forged one of the best collective agreement in the country for this sector. However, in spite of this militancy and the prior victories, the 2008-2009 strike undertaken by CUPE 3903 ended in a severe defeat for the union, as Queen’s Park adopted back to work legislation putting an end to the conflict.

This text is an attempt to summarize the main events of the strike, to analyze the tactical and strategic errors made by CUPE 3903 and, finally, to propose some conclusions and proposals in light of this defeat. Such analysis is all the more necessary since the struggle led by this union was not simply conjunctural in nature. It took place within a broader movement of resistance that needs to be developed and enlarged in the face of the accelerating spread of precarious employment in university teaching and research work in the current neoliberal period.

The Neoliberal University and the Casualization of Work

The neoliberal period that began over three decades ago has been accompanied by the further universalization and deepening of capitalism and commodification. This deeper anchoring of capital’s logic has led different university administrations – as well as numerous other public sector institutions – to adopt capitalist modes of management.

These modes of management imply, among other things, a “rationalization” of programs of study (with a tendency to prioritize science, medicine and engineering departments); an ongoing privatization of research as well as of many physical spaces on campuses; the development of aggressive marketing campaigns aiming at attracting “customers” and at securing a larger “market share” in competition with other universities; more positions and resources dedicated to administrative functions; and a systematic reduction of labour costs related to teaching [1].

This restructuring process was largely imposed through the under-financing and conditional financing of universities by the state. However, these new modes of management have by now largely been internalized and institutionalized by university administrators. This competitive logic has also been significantly internalized by many students – especially in English Canada – who have more and more come to look at education as a personal investment and, consequently, consider it normal to pay a high price to obtain it.

This context has allowed for steady tuition fee hikes – paralleled by an almost as steady decrease in state funding – which have become a preferred way for administrators to try to cope with the under-financing universities are facing. It follows that universities are competing against one another in order to attract and retain an increasing number of students, thereby hoping to balance their budgets. As the number of students is rising, universities, aiming to reduce their labour costs, are increasingly relying on contract faculty. They are also systematically increasing the number of students per classroom, therefore reducing the quality of teaching. Professors and contract faculty are flanked by an army of teaching assistants who carry out the marking that can’t be carried out by a single individual.

This labour-cost reduction strategy has had the effect of increasing the number of precariously employed workers in the university sector. Professors are replaced by contract faculty and teaching assistants with much lower wages and – especially in the case of contract faculty – without any job security, as they have to apply for the same position each term, with no guarantee that their contracts will be renewed. Many of them must also teach at different universities, often in more than one city, in order tp make ends meet. This tends to decrease the quality of education offered, since it limits the availability of teachers to their students.

The diminishing number of tenure-track professors and parallel increase of part-time teachers also implies an important redefinition of the traditional functioning of universities. It entails a disjunction between research and teaching work. Increasingly, research tasks are assumed by “star professors” directing groups of graduate students acting as research assistants. Teaching is then more and more relegated to contract faculty, who have little time to devote to their own research work.

The USA represents the vanguard of this process of casualization. There, only 30% of university professors have tenure. The American Association of University Professors’ membership has fallen from 90 000 in 1973 to 43 000 today, while the number of students attending universities has gone up at an unprecedented rate during the same period (de la Cour 2009). As Joe Berry puts it, the casualization of university work “represents one of the few recent instances in the United States economy (another is taxi driving) where an entire occupation has been converted from permanent career status to temporary, often part-time, status in the space of a single generation” (Berry 2005: 3-4)

If the situation is not as bad in Canada and Québec, we are marching along the same path. In Québec universities, it is not uncommon to see around 50% of the teaching done by contract faculty. During the second half of the 1990s, in the wake of Bouchard’s “socio-economic summit,” the number of tenured professors in the province declined from 9050 to 8138 (FQPPU 1998). And the decrease does not seem to be anywhere near an end, in spite of important gains related to these matters achieved by the UQAM faculty union during its 2009 strike.

At York University, over 55% of the teaching is done by contract faculty, which makes it the worst public university in Ontario in terms of the casualization of teaching and research work. Its number of contract faculty and teaching assistants has increased very rapidly since the beginning of the 2000s. It was in order to put an end to this degradation of their working conditions that CUPE 3903 members struck in the fall of 2008.

The Battle of York

In preparation for the renegotiation of the collective agreement that was expiring in 2008 CUPE 3903 members adopted a very ambitious and elaborate platform of demands. The union was forced to drop or reduce many of these demands along the way.

Nevertheless, a core of four main demands can be identified: 1) the creation of a five year contract for contract faculty who had taught for many years, as well as the same number of conversions of contract faculty to tenured professors that had been included in the collective agreement that had expired; 2) an increase in the minimum income of teaching assistants that would bring them up to the poverty line; 3) the indexation of funds that finance benefits provided under the collective agreement, in proportion to the increase in membership that occurred between 2001 and 2005[2]; and, 4) a two-year collective agreement, which would allow CUPE 3903 to join a coordinated bargaining campaign planned for 2010 by CUPE Ontario that would unite the majority of the unions involved in the sector.

Bargaining started in July 2008. Almost no progress occurred from July to November of that year. From the start, the employer asked for binding arbitration and systematically refused to consent to any substantial improvements. Ironically, the employer had categorically refused to allow such a process to take place during the previous 2000-2001 conflict, arguing that a third party, being unaware of the concrete realities the university was facing, could not possibly put together a good collective agreement.

Faced with the York administration’s obstinate refusal to move, in spite of important concessions by the union, the latter went on strike on November 6. 71.7% of the members attending the general membership meeting organized to assess the employer’s “final offer” – which the union bargaining team recommended rejecting – voted in favour of striking. In reaction, York’s administration announced the cancellation of all classes on both campuses until further notice.

Early during the strike a tactical debate erupted within the union, as it became necessary to shift an employer that seemed to be determined to quietly wait for the union to lower many of its demands before moving on anything. This was all the more pressing since the York administration was refusing to talk at the bargaining table but was clearly happy to talk with the media and was successfully depicting the striking employees as spoiled and unreasonable children.

A first general meeting decided to give the employer a taste of its own medicine by requiring that it make a substantial move before the union would resume bargaining. An important portion of the membership considered this a bad decision and launched an internal mobilization campaign to overturn it, which was done at the next general meeting. In fact, a significant number of members came to think that their union’s demands were excessive and impossible to defend in the circumstances.

In order to correct this situation, some proposed to break with the bargaining “from below” principle that had been developed in CUPE 3903 during the preceding bargaining rounds. They were hoping that this break would give the bargaining team all the room for manoeuvre it would need to rapidly bring the conflict to an end. Following stormy debates, a motion was adopted at a general membership meeting that granted the bargaining team full discretion in modifying and reducing the union’s demands without having to consult the membership. Nevertheless, during the following weeks the employer kept refusing to make any move.

Finally, in early December, this impasse ended as both sides came to an agreement on the issue of indexing the benefit funds. This, however, was the employer’s only serious move during the entire strike. The union’s bargaining team attempted to make new gains by making additional concessions. Most notably, it reduced the wage increase demand from 7% (at the beginning of the strike) to 4% for every year covered by the collective agreement.

However, these reductions made by their representatives only increased the divisions that already existed among the members. For instance, many members were startled when the bargaining team accepted the employer’s offer concerning the guaranteed minimum income for research assistants. This led a general membership meeting to re-establish bargaining from below.

The union also adopted a strategy to diversify its modes of action. From the beginning of the strike, about a thousand members were regularly active, mainly on the eight picket lines that were slowing down car access on both university campuses. Faced with the employer’s inaction, however, it was decided that it was necessary to develop new types of action in order to increase the pressure. A sleep-in, which lasted for several weeks, was organized in the hall leading to the administration’s offices. Many protests were also organized in downtown Toronto.

In early January, over seven weeks after the start of the strike, York presented a new “final offer” including a few improvements linked to the long-term contract for some contract faculty demanded by CUPE 3903. This progress was, however, deemed insignificant by the executive committee as well as by the bargaining team. The offer was rejected by 90% at a general membership meeting.

On January 9, the university administration formally asked the Ontario Ministry of Labour to organize a ratification vote [3]. In fact, it was asking the union membership to vote again on an offer that their general membership meeting had just massively rejected only a few days before. It was hoping that the members who had not been present at the meetings and not been active during a strike that was dragging on would seize this opportunity to end it. But things did not turn out as it had hoped, as each of the three bargaining units represented by CUPE 3903 rejected the employer’s offer, with 63% of the local’s membership voting no.

Following the vote, the union’s bargaining team lowered its demands once more and even accepted the employer’s wage offer in order to reach an agreement as quickly as possible. But this was to no avail as the employer still refused to move. On January 29, Queen’s Park jumped in to back York’s administration by passing back to work legislation. The Toronto police department also joined in by brutalizing many CUPE 3903 members and arresting four during a protest opposing the legislation. The striking workers were forced to go back to work on February 2. In early April, after many more weeks of sham bargaining, during which the union was disarmed, a new contract was accepted by the membership. This collective agreement included important setbacks on many points when compared to the previous one that had been ratified in 2006.

The rules of the game were set in advance and it appears that the employer was aware of it from the start. Yet the defeat was not a matter of fate. In order to avoid the repetition of such an outcome in the future, it is important to develop a critical analysis of the strategic choices adopted by CUPE 3903.

Strategic Questions

During the bargaining round that began in 2008, CUPE 3903’s leadership developed an offensive strategy, hoping to achieve major gains. This campaign was, from the start, presented as a political struggle against neoliberal restructuring in the university sector and for the right to a quality education. Adopting a very elaborate platform, the union opted for a campaign slogan that made quite clear what its intentions were: “be realistic, demand the impossible.”

However, such a strategy had important lacunas. It forced the union, which was rapidly isolated and internally divided, into a vicious circle where each concession signalled the next. The employer had it way easier and was perceived as legitimate when asking its counterpart to lower its demands to a “reasonable” level, which it came to define in the media, where CUPE 3903 was depicted as irresponsible right from the start of the dispute. This depiction was all the easier to produce in a context of severe economic crisis.

As rapidly became evident, the offensive strategy adopted by the union was not unconditionally backed by the membership [4]. In the absence of a strong consensus and determination to defend a very ambitious package including sizeable monetary demands – among which, at the beginning of bargaining, were wage demands of over 15% a year – this strategy was soon compromised. Moreover, this strategy contributed to creating important divisions within the membership, divisions that led the union to give up, for a while, on bargaining from below. This isolated our bargaining team from the direction and direct support of the membership for the demands that were discussed at the table.

All of this weakened the balance of power between CUPE 3903 and the employer. From the start, this balance of power was also misevaluated by the union. The decision was made to launch a major offensive campaign in 2008 instead of waiting for the coordinated bargaining campaign that was being planned by CUPE Ontario for 2010.

Considering the gains made by the union in the past, the decision to launch an offensive campaign was not, per se, an eccentric one. However, CUPE 3903 could have put more time and energy into building external support, most importantly among other unions in its sector, before launching it alone in a difficult context. Building the strongest possible links with undergrad students should also have been a priority [5], along with the development of a stronger consensus in the membership about the platform of demands. All of this could have been attempted in the process of a campaign of escalating tactics that would have eventually led to an all-out strike. This would have offered the opportunity to educate undergrad students as well as the population of Toronto and Ontario about the union’s demands.

The problems with the strategy adopted by CUPE 3903 were ably exploited by the employer. From the start, it accepted the challenge presented by the workers and cancelled classes. It then refused to bargain in a serious manner. In fact, as NDP MPPs noted during debates at Queen’s Park on the adoption of back to work legislation, there was no doubt that York’s administration has been bargaining in bad faith. During the 85 days of the strike, the employer only sat down at the bargaining table on 12 occasions, all the while running an abject media campaign of disinformation.

The strategy of exhaustion and division adopted by the employer had a certain success. Using rhetoric that called for belt tightening in a time of crisis, it was able to isolate the union by fanning the flames of discontent among undergrad students and the general population. However, on its own it was not able to undermine the CUPE 3903 membership’s determination. After long weeks spent on snowy picket lines the members rejected York’s ridiculous offer during the forced ratification vote. The final blow had to be administered by McGuinty’s Liberal government, which showed the obvious collusion with the university administration.


The provincial government intervention that ended the strike imposed a major defeat on CUPE 3903 as well as all workers in the sector. It represents a blatant denial of the right to strike that will have an impact on coming struggles in the university sector and beyond.

However, to recognize this fact and acknowledge the mistakes that might have been committed during the strike does not imply that the demands that were brought forward by the union were illegitimate. They were, in fact, quite legitimate, and their satisfaction remains necessary. The problem was that the balance of power that existed between the union and the employer did not allow for a happy ending.

The refusal of the university administration – and its Queen’s Park allies – to grant these demands was not the result of an economic inevitability.  It flowed from a political decision. Even in their initial form, the union’s demands could have been satisfied by the university and by the state. After all, year after year York is saving tens of millions of dollars on the backs of contract faculty and teaching assistants, who it blithely exploits instead of adequately renewing its tenured faculty workforce. All things considered, as extravagant as the demands might have appeared, CUPE 3903 was only ever asking to receive a small part of what should be granted to its members in the first place – and what used to be granted to the majority of university teachers (who were tenured professors) in the university sector not so long ago.

Furthermore, the union systematically lowered its demands during the bargaining process. Towards the end of the strike, in January, the overall monetary value of the different improvements it was asking for amounted to an increase of no more than 0.45% of York’s $800 million annual budget. This was nothing excessive if we bear in mind that CUPE 3903’s members conduct over 55% of all teaching at York [6].

The problem, then, was not so much economic as it was political. For York’s administration, it was politically unacceptable to incorporate principles guaranteeing greater job security for contract faculty in the collective agreement. Such a concession would have opened a Pandora’s box and would have been an important irritant for the process of neoliberal restructuring of the university launched by its administrators. For the provincial government, it would have been politically unacceptable to allow public sector workers to improve their working conditions considerably at a time of crisis. This would have been a very bad example. As they saw it, then, the problem faced by these two actors was less to revise their budget than to break one of Canada’s most combative university sector unions.

If there was no absolute economic inevitability involved in this conflict, it follows that defeat was not inevitable. Gains remain possible in the future. For this, it is important for CUPE 3903 not to fall into the trap of business unionism where conciliation is perceived as synonymous with pragmatism, the struggle is depoliticized and union’s role is seen as that of a “responsible” joint administrator of a collective agreement.

It is important to maintain and develop a combative form of unionism where pragmatism is based on a sober appreciation of a situation and on building a favourable balance of power in relation to the employer. This project implies the consolidation and deepening of union democracy. We must remember and reassert that the direct involvement of members through general membership meetings in the processes of developing demands and bargaining with the employer strengthens the bargaining team’s power at the table by breaking its isolation. Collective reflection also allows for a constant evaluation of the balance of forces and of appropriate actions – at the bargaining table as well as on the picket lines and in the streets – to tilt it in favour of the workers. Finally, the direct involvement of members in the struggle opens the way to a process of learning and political self-development that prepares them for future struggles and has the potential to broaden and radicalize their outlook.

The development of a combative and democratic unionism also involves building links with all workers in the sector. This point is especially important for CUPE 3903, which needs to develop strong links with other unions in the sector as well as with the provincial student movement. Yet, beyond this sectoral struggle, the union must also develop solidarity and try unite its struggles with those of the whole of the working class. If, in the past, some mistakenly doubted that university sector workers were part of this class, such doubts are no longer possible: university teachers and researchers are as affected by the spread of precarious employment as other workers.

Finally, it is important to develop a critical analysis of capitalism and the imperatives deriving from capital’s endless need for accumulation, which underlie the spread of precarious employment. This analysis must help us to formulate our demands and to organize our struggles.

To pursue such an orientation in order to rebuild its forces, while soberly evaluating the political context within which its struggles take place – this is what could allow CUPE 3903 to ensure that the next battle of York won’t be its Waterloo.

Xavier Lafrance is a member of CUPE 3903, the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly and Québec Solidaire. This is a slightly revised version of an article that originally appeared (in French) in Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme 2 (Fall 2009).


[1] From 1997 to 2004, the Québec university payroll allocated to administration rose by 83.2%, while that allocated to professors rose only by 34.6%, close to the inflation rate over the period.

[2] CUPE 3903’s membership had grown by more than 50% since the previous strike of 2000-2001.

[3] The forced ratification vote is a measure introduced in Ontario by the Harris Conservative government in the 1990s. It permits the employer to unilaterally require a vote by the members of a union on an offer.  The bargaining team does not have to recommend the offer nor agree to the vote. An employer can only use this tactic one time in the course of a strike.

[4] A majority of the membership probably supported the broad principles and the political perspective that motivated our struggle. And the strike had the effect of reinforcing this support among many members. But many in the union questioned a strategy that was so offensive and the decision to adopt it at that particular time.

[5] In this regard, the formal support for the strike provided by York’s undergrad student union turned out to be completely insufficient.

[6] This is even more the case if we recall that the president of the university has the right to a salary of over $325 000 per year on top of numerous benefits provided by the university including a house and a private driver.


Berry, Joe (2005). Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press

de la Cour, Lykke (2009). “The Casualization of Academic Labour at York University” available online on the York Democratic Forum

Fédération Québécoise des Professeures et Professeurs d’Univerisité (FQPPU) (1998). “Le phénomène de la précarité et la question des chargés de cours à l’université.” available online

Fédération Québécoise des Professeures et Professeurs d’Univerisité (FQPPU) (2008). “Financement des universités: Investir dans le Cadre Professoral”, available online