On May 15, York University’s lawyer, Simon Mortimer, responded to CUPE 3903’s May 14 letter in which the union’s bargaining team outlined how the two parties are not, in fact, far apart.
In response, the employer’s stipulated that:
“there are substantive differences in our positions on key issues and, unfortunately, does not appear to map out a path to resolve what is clearly an impasse.”
Needless to say, the union, especially the Unit 3 members of the bargaining team, is extremely disappointed as we believe this statement is misleading. The two parties do indeed share the same values and principles, and we believe there is a real possibility of negotiating a settlement if the employer is willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
In response to CUPE 3903’s Unit 3 summary from May 14, the employer states:
“We can only read the following phrasing to mean that CUPE 3903 is maintaining its position that some defined number of incoming Master’s students – 700 to 800 Master’s students on a more literal interpretation – be assigned a graduate assistantship as an element of their funding so as to bring them within the scope of the recognition clause of the Collective Agreement.”
Let us be clear – prior to the labour dispute, the union modified its Unit 3 proposals by removing the floor on 700 jobs in order to find a path for resolution. For the employer to refuse to acknowledge this movement after two months does not indicate an impasse, but a deliberate strategy to force the settlement into arbitration despite the fact that bargaining has hardly been explored and is therefore not exhausted.
As a reminder, it was the university that unilaterally removed more than 700 members from the collective agreement, without consulting with CUPE 3903, triggering some of the conditions in which the union chose to go on strike.
The union filed an Unfair Labour Practice in 2016, which the two parties agreed to pause in order to negotiate a solution at the bargaining table. To this, the union has demonstrated its flexibility and willingness to come to a resolution by taking into consideration the employer’s concerns. As of February, the union has proposed that all incoming Master’s students have an opportunity and informed choice to access GAships, rather than ask for a floor on 700 jobs.
Yet, the employer responded that:
“The Union does not represent Master’s students and negotiating that they be required to work or offered job opportunities as a condition of funding is out of scope.”
Once again, we reiterate that this is neither a novel demand nor one that is out of scope, given that it was customary to offer Master’s students an ability to access GAships until 2016. The spirit of the union’s Unit 3 proposal is akin to the offer PhD students receive, where they are given an opportunity and informed choice to access TAships. But the employer claims:
“A key principle informing the design of the York Fellowship program is that it treats graduate students as students first, promoting their ability to focus on their academic goals. CUPE 3903’s position on graduate assistantships runs counter to this principle and the best interests of our students.”
The union strongly disagrees that this position runs counter to this principle. Our proposal provides incoming students an ability to choose whether or not they wish to seek a GAship, depending on their academic goals and career aspirations, as well as interest in accessing the benefits and protections of union membership. CUPE 3903 has neither indicated that graduate students should not focus on their academic goals nor claimed that fellowships should be removed from their letter of offer. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous and creates an artificial division between the employer’s position and the union’s.
In addition to providing opportunities to partake in a GAship, the union asked the employer to remove all institutional barriers that prevent principle investigators (PIs) from hiring GAs. After careful consultation with members of the York University Faculty Association (YUFA), it is clear that barriers imposed by the employer in 2016, such the increased cost of benefits (from 30% to 80%!) and the removal of matching funds by the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), has prevented PIs from hiring GAs. Yet, the employer has neither responded nor explained why they reject this element of the proposal. For this reason, the union believes that the employer’s proposal to create a small Graduate Assistant Training (GAT) fund will be inadequate in incentivizing the hiring of GAs, as any meaningful proposal must also remove hiring barriers. There is no reason to believe that the union and the employer cannot creatively find a solution to this issue.
It cannot be stated enough – GAs are essential for the development of knowledge, and the facilitation of the research that is at the core of a university’s objective. GAships – whether they consist of clerical, administration, or research work – are indeed academic work, as acknowledged historically in previous collective agreements and labour negotiations. An academic publication that relies on research participants and interviews inevitably requires transcriptions and analysis. A research project inevitably requires the organization of logistics such as contacting and setting up an interview with a participant. There is no reason to believe why a GAship cannot exist side by side with a fellowship.
In sum, it is unclear how Unit 3 proposals contradict the university’s values and principles, and how the two sides remain far apart. If York University’s mission is “the pursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge”, and the promise of “excellence in research and teaching in pure, applied and professional fields”, then access to GAships also play a critical role in ensuring this mission is fulfilled. If the university believes that CUPE 3903’s demands run counter to its principles and values, then why would the university be interested in incentivizing the hiring of GAs with a proposed GAT fund?
The union and university neither differs in values and principles, nor are the two parties far apart. The question that needs to be resolved is how both a fellowship and an opportunity to access a GAship can exist symbiotically – something that an outside, third party arbitrator will neither be able to meaningfully appreciate nor address. It is clear that the two parties can find a pathway to a creative resolution as long both sides are willing to engage, be flexible, and compromise. Had the university decided to meet the union face-to-face on more than one occasion since the strike began and seriously committed to working together at the negotiation table, the dispute would have come to a resolution. Nonetheless, the union remains confident that a settlement can and will be reached at the bargaining table.