Open Letter to the York Community on Behalf of CUPE 3903 Rank and File Members

The following is an open letter to Rhonda Lenton and the York Community written by CUPE 3903 Rank and File members. CUPE 3903’s Executive Committee has endorsed this open letter.


We, rank-and-file members of CUPE 3903, write this letter in good faith because we are members of the York community. We were present at the Senate Forum on Thursday October 4th which was designed to help us move forward after the strike. We were present because we love this university and the community it grants us. We are not outsiders or enemies to the community, but an important and vibrant part of it. Please listen to us.

The entire community has suffered greatly from the 143-day strike. We have paid a high financial, physical, psychological, and academic cost. We are fully aware, in our relationships with our students, colleagues, and staff, that we are not alone. The attempt by the administration to turn a much needed community-building exercise into a PR opportunity was shameful.

There was much talk at the Forum of respect. We are not interested in making an empty show of respect or in going through the motions of ritualized decorum. We require a higher standard than that. For us, respect can be genuine only if it is built on a foundation of truthfulness and transparency. As we are committed to that standard, we are also committed to challenging the York administration when it falls short of it, even if it means breaking the spell and allure of respectability.

With that in mind, it is important to note the many falsehoods that were stated as fact during this Forum. It is not appropriate for the President of this university to state things that are simply factually incorrect then proceed to hide behind calls to civility to let her lies remain unchallenged. Even if we were to generously assume that these falsehoods were the result of being genuinely mistaken, coming to such a Forum without knowing the basics of why the strike happened was disrespectful. Engaging in the process of reconciliation and healing requires a willing partner to participate in an exercise of listening. Please hear us on the following:

  1. The accusations under the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities did not follow the appropriate process laid out in the Code itself, or our collective agreements. The accusations are frivolous and often downright silly (while feelings may be hurt by a chant like “hey hey, ho ho, Rhonda Lenton has got to go”, this is not harassment or bullying. The decision-makers of this institution must take some responsibility when things go poorly, like for example a 143-day strike). President Lenton claimed that the administration was obligated to pursue the complaints through the proper channels because individual members of the community filed complaints. This, however, is not what happened: Carol McAulay, VP Finance, filed the complaints on behalf of the administration. This is a violation of the Code: accusers are supposed to be known and to file complaints on their own behalf. The administration also ignored the timelines in the Code in order to inform the accused of their charges the day after CUPE 3903
    dropped its Unfair Labour Practice suit in good faith and in a show of reconciliation. These facts matter, as they shed some light on the false accusation that members of the York community are real threats to their community. It appears clear that the accusations are motivated by the desire to stifle dissent and instill fear in student activists.
  2. The Fellowship Funding Model, which was rolled out unilaterally in 2016 and was a large cause of the strike, was misrepresented on several occasions. Here are things that are true:
    a. Master’s students who are not unionized lose potentially around $6000 a year in benefits. This is without counting access to funds for childcare as well as professional and academic development funds, support for sexual violence survivors, extended healthcare benefits, and support for Trans* people. These benefits allow the most marginalized to undertake graduate studies, which can only enrich our community and the research produced at the university.
    b. The Fellowship Model hurts those who the university should be supporting. If some students have said they preferred the fellowship model — which the President claimed several times without producing any proof — this does not negate the administration’s responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. Accessibility is not a matter of opinion, and especially not based on anecdotal evidence.
    c.Scholarships are not distributed on top of the Fellowship. This attempt to lie to. graduate students about the contents of their own student accounts was a particularly egregious attempt to reconstruct reality.
    d. The administration not only made GAships optional; they have tripled the benefits surcharge on every GA, increasing the cost of hiring a GA to a point where faculty members may see their grants denied. This indicates that it was done with union busting in mind, not simply “improving the student experience”, and certainly not aligned with York’s claim to promote ‘experiential learning’.
    e. Several policies around the Fellowship are designed to fill York’s coffers at the expense of graduate students and faculty. For example, if two faculty members hire the same GA for a term each, they must both pay the benefits surcharge, even though the student obviously only gets to use one member’s worth of benefits. Likewise, if a Master’s student needs to take a leave of absence, the administration will demand that they reimburse their fellowship.
    f. We tried to discuss these issues and come to compromises at the bargaining table. On March 20th, Simon Mortimer, a lawyer selected by the administration because of his deeply anti-union stance, including a trail of strikes in the Ontario public sector, walked into the bargaining room and declared that the administration refused to bargain for Unit 3. That was an opportunity for us to have a dialogue and move forward, but the
    administration refused.
  3. In order for us to move forward as a community, we need some accountability. The Board of Governors must follow its own bylaws. The President must take responsibility for the fact that the administration refused to bargain for 143 days. We feel strongly that our Unit 2 colleagues deserve an apology for how they and their teaching and research were slandered in the media. We all deserve an apology for months of gaslighting, including the callous cruelty of Lisa Phillips’ letter on May 23rd which brushed off a hit and run on Pond Road with victim-blaming, strongly implying that some members’ and allies’ engagement in innocuous activities such as protest or growing vegetables somehow warranted a car driving straight into the picket line. Undergraduate students deserve an apology for how they were used as pawns in a strike that was orchestrated by an administration which hired a union-busting lawyer who publicly states that strikes are good for employers. The York administration needs to acknowledge the harm done to the students who were kicked out of residence with next to no warning, the ones who have had their graduation pushed back, all the ones who turned to the administration for answers but were turned away. We want to move forward. We address this letter to the community because we love learning, teaching, and doing research at York. The York community is composed of students, instructors, researchers, and staff, not high-paid administrators or the corporate
    Board of Governors.

The way forward seems clear. We ask that President Lenton and the York administration 1) drop the complaints under the Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities and accept that dissent is a healthy part of any community; 2) accept that the Fellowship Model has serious flaws and work with our bargaining team and the arbitrator to come to a compromise that centers accessibility and research opportunities for graduate students; 3) take some responsibility for the position in which we now find ourselves and apologize to those they have harmed.