Campus contracts: a striking chapter in education

York University yesterday began its first full week of classes after an 11- week strike.

The strike that almost ate Christine Shakespeare's freshman year is over.

Students at Toronto's York University yesterday began their first full week of classes after the settlement of the longest-running university strike in the history of English Canada.

But this is probably not the end of campus labor strife in this country. And given the increased level of university unionism in the United States of late, some version of the York scenario could conceivably play out there, too.

The strike at York, where unionized graduate students and contract faculty virtually shut down the campus since Oct. 26 - mostly over a wage dispute - occurred at the juncture of several different lines:

*Cutbacks in government funding, and several years of tuition hikes above inflation.

*More and more of the academic workload shifted from tenure-track professors to less costly university employees.

*Rapidly expanding demand for public higher education, both because the baby-boom echo means there are more university-age Canadians and because they and their families see higher education as essential to career success in the new economy.

University education "has become an essential service that should be protected against strikes," as one caller to a Toronto radio station put it.

"Full-time university enrollment will likely increase by approximately 25 to 40 percent by the end of the next decade," a study by the Council of Ontario Universities found. The same document also projected that as a major demographic bulge of academics heads toward retirement, 11,000 to 13,000 new full-time faculty hires will be needed over the same period.

"I approve, in principle, of the strike," says Ms. Shakespeare, of Oshawa, Ontario, as she enjoys a snack at the student union. "I just wish it hadn't taken so long to settle." She says there may have been a desire "on the part of the union and administration to show, 'We mean business, we're not going to have to negotiate all these things again.' "

With the settlement ratified, both sides are claiming victory. "We have achieved settlements which compensate the employees without jeopardizing the academic and financial integrity of the University," announced York's president, Dr. Lorna Marsden.

"We were able to hold the line on access to higher education," said Joel Harden, a spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903, which represents the strikers.

The union was able to retain in its contract a provision - unique among Canadian universities - linking the salaries of teaching assistants to the tuitions they must pay as students.

"York was under tremendous pressure from other universities to get that provision out of its contract," says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Ottawa's Carleton University, for instance, is negotiating with its teaching assistants, who are seeking tuition indexation and "are likely to be in a strike position soon," says Mr. Turk.

Another issue is the transfer of teaching loads from tenured or tenure-track faculty to instructors hired on short-term or part-time contracts. CAUT has had successful organizing drives at four Canadian universities over the past six months, according to Turk. These instructors typically teach so many courses, often at two or more institutions, that they have no time for the research and writing that would qualify them for tenure. "At Carleton, 60 percent of course titles by taught by non-tenure-track faculty," says Turk.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., makes a similar point about American universities. "More than half of the classes in American universities are being taught by graduate students and adjuncts. They do the work of the universities."

And thus they have the power to shut them down, as York University found.

Canada and the US have different labor laws and traditions: Canadians tend to respect picket lines more than Americans do. Virtually all Canadian universities are public and virtually all fulltime professors here are unionized. In the US, however, private institutions play a major role, and until recently, their graduate students have not been allowed to organize, on the grounds that they are primarily students.

In November, however, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at New York University, a private institution, could indeed organize. "The NYU case opened the door," says Ms. Bronfenbrenner and given the teaching loads the students shoulder, "It's going to be harder to argue that they aren't employees."

The TAs at York earn about US$25 an hour, according to university officials. But Ontario universities have had tuition rises of as much as 10 percent per year over the past decade - well above inflation. The hikes have come as the provincial government, looking to cut spending generally but eager to preserve or restore healthcare funding, found the cash under the "education" column of the budget.

According to Turk, university operating grants from the province fell 35.1 percent per capita, in constant dollars, from 1992-93 to 1998-99.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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