Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two big labour disputes - two nasty strikes

I've been following two strikes that have been causing major headaches in Ontario for the last few months. In Ottawa, the OC Transpo bus strike is now heading into week six - I arrived in the city for a research visit on day one of the strike, and got a first hand taste both of the mass disruption that it's causing and of the belligerence of the city's mayor. The union recently rejected the city's latest offer in a vote mandated by the federal Labour Minister. Meanwhile, in Toronto, CUPE 3903, the union representing York University's teaching assistants, graduate assistants and contract faculty has just rejected the university's latest offer in a vote mandated by the Ontario government. The initial response from the university is far from conciliatory. York's strike is now into week eleven.

I am not familiar with every single issue on the table in these two contract disputes, and I've long been hesitant to post anything on either issue. However, in both cases the two opposing parties seem to have dug in their heels - they aren't even at the negotiating tables anymore. Frankly, I'm worried for the union members. I think they're going to be in for a rough ride in the next few weeks as the toll of being limited to strike pay gets worse. And I don't think that either union is going to win public sympathy for their wage demands during a hotly-discussed recession.

While the York union's demand for increased full-time faculty positions is a serious one - more and more universities are relying on overworked short-term contract teaching faculty - the manner in which they have presented their case has alienated the permanent faculty members who might otherwise have been counted on for support. Automatic conversions (as the demand was initially presented, although this has been modified) of long-term teaching faculty to permanent status on the basis of seniority will never get the support of university faculty who have had the mantras of "publish or perish" and a meritocratic open hiring system drilled into them. I also am not completely convinced that university administrations want to move in this direction, but rather believe that they are at least partly forced in this direction by the governments that (under)fund them.

What's the next step? In both cases, I think a resolution is still weeks away. In both cases, public pressure for the respective governments (federal for OC Transpo, provincial for York) to legislate the striking members back to work will increase daily. I suspect that the smart move for each union would be to quickly present a comprehensive package to their employers - minus the most contentious ideological issues - in the hopes of salvaging a deal that is at least as good as the one currently on the table. I don't think that they will fare better in arbitration, which favors the status quo, and certainly not in a back-to-work legislation scenario. Unfortunately for them, the deal is stacked against the unions at the best of times, and a recession is not the best of times.

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At 8:48 pm, Anonymous John said...

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty stands behind the striking CUPE 3903 works until the bitter end, just as you have supported us morally and financially for more than a decade.

And if the province were to force back to work legislation I hope CUPE 3903 would not follow such undemocratic laws.

At 1:37 pm, Blogger Canada Libre said...

So what are your thoughts on the comments of Premier McGuinty today and his hopes to have the York staff back to work by Monday?

Official News Release:

At 6:37 pm, Blogger Matt said...

I missed the last 24 hours of the news cycle - hence my delayed reply with the benefit of additional information.

I think that this endpoint was entirely predictable - and unfortunate for the union's membership. The NDP has to slow down the back-to-work legislation or risk alienating its base - but it won't play well in the media or among Toronto voters. McGuinty was bound to follow this path eventually, given the amount of media pressure. I think that the CUPE executive woefully misread the university's bargaining stance as mere tactics - and advised its members to vote against a deal that they'll be very lucky to get with the arbitrator.

The question of whether university faculty /are/ essential services and should be legislated back to work on that basis is an entirely different question. But I'm not surprised by this outcome.


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