Political Dissent Must Be Protected

On Tuesday, September 18, CUPE 3903 filed a grievance against York University’s attempts to circumvent the collective agreement by charging members with Student Code of Conduct violations for their participation in the strike. Arguably more important than contesting this violation of our contracts, however, is fighting back against the university’s use of draconian and punitive measures in an attempt to scare students, both graduate, and undergraduate, from participating in political dissent.

On Thursday, August 9, York University issued vague letters informing five members and three community members that they are being issued Student Code of Conduct violations, with punishments up to expelling the people in question, for actions taken in support of the strike. The union has been informed that while our targeted members requested an informal resolution process, the York administration denied the request and insisted on a tribunal process.  

On the day the strike was forcibly ended through unconstitutional back-to-work legislation, President Rhonda Lenton issued a letter in which she claims that she will personally be “taking steps to ensure that our CUPE colleagues feel welcomed and supported”. The good faith of these words is brought into serious doubt considering York’s current actions, which are the complete opposite of welcoming and supportive. Attempting to punish individuals for taking a position contrary to that of the administration’s is a declaration of war not only on CUPE 3903 but on all political expression, on and off campus, that members of the York community may choose to partake in.

Punishing individuals, up to and including taking away their livelihoods, in order to silence dissent is egregious enough. However, this case is particularly alarming for a number of additional reasons.

Accusations appear almost random. The accused did not all participate in the same actions or protests. Most actions involved many more people. Why these nine were selected for punishment is unknown. This uncertainty could very well be calculated to increase the fear that anyone could be targeted, thus furthering the chill against political expression.

York is violating their own rules. Complaints must be filed within 30 days of the alleged offense. None of the protests that could be cause for these charges took place within 30 days of the complaint being filed. While the Code does allow for “reasonable” extensions of the time-limit, none is apparent here. In fact, these letters were all sent the day after the union agreed to drop its Unfair Labour Practice suit against York University as if they were waiting for us to withdraw the case in good faith before moving forward with the process of punishing our members.

This is an attempt to circumvent the protections of the collective agreement. Discipline for employees must go through the provisions of their collective agreement. Within this process, members have a right to union representation at every step. These allegations are clearly directly related to the strike and therefore relate to members as employees, not students. In fact, the accused have been informed that the university has the right to deny them the right to legal representation. It is apparent that this entire process is not designed with fairness for, or protection of, the accused in mind.

This pattern of surveillance and discipline is unprecedented at York, and it continued throughout the strike despite warnings from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). In a letter to Lucy Fromowitz, responding to the university’s threats to use the Student Code of Conduct against members of Reclaim YorkU, the CCLA states that “While free expression is at the heart of the right to dissent, protest is about more than free speech or being heard. It is about attempting to effect change respectfully, disruptions to the social order are in fact regularly part of the legitimate intent of an act of protest”. York University has refused to bargain for months, constantly surveilled our picket lines, sent out poisonous emails in which they excuse violence against picketers, and shown a callous disregard for undergraduates beyond collecting their tuition dollars. It should not be a surprise that members of the York community, be they members of CUPE 3903 or not, would turn to peaceful protest in an attempt to effect change.

There is much discussion in Ontario politics, currently, about protecting freedom of speech on campuses. Having members of the community contest ideas or decisions they disagree with, even if it is “disruptive”, is not an assault on free speech. On the contrary, it is its very exercise. For a publicly-funded university like York to use its considerable institutional power to silence dissenters and plant the seeds of fear – that is a real threat to the freedom of expression that is a central component to a just and free society, especially for a university allegedly centered on social justice.

It seems apparent that these draconian measures are being taken in an effort to place a chill over free political expression on campus. We are not afraid. CUPE 3903 will fight for anyone who is being targeted for political expression and call on other campus groups and unions to do the same.