Canada: University strike suppressed

February 14, 2009

The longest strike in Anglo-Canadian history, at Toronto's York University, has been suppressed by anti-union, legislation after a three-month long picket line.

The back-to-work legislation was passed with support from the Liberal and Conservative parties on January 29. The bill's passage was delayed by opposition from the New Democratic Party.

The legislation indicates a growing trend of anti-union, anti-worker responses to the economic crisis.

The strike began on November 6 and involved 3350 teachers assistants and part-time faculty members in the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903 (CUPE 3903).

York University is Canada's third largest university with more than 50,000 students.

CUPE 3903 members demanded a two-year contract to allow for a province-wide bargaining period in 2010 along with increased job security. Many university staff currently have to re-apply for their job each year.

The strike raised vital questions about the interaction between the labour movement and students and the potential for these movements to defend workers' rights in a time of economic crisis.

The university administration and the media exploited the disruption the strike caused to thousands of workers, educators and students. The York Federation of Students (YFS) was also attacked for supporting the strike.

Despite the end of the strike, a right-wing move against the YFS has continued with the creation of a "drop YFS" campaign to oust the current student government.

Conservative pro-Israel students have also joined the campaign against the YFS, citing a motion passed by the student union condemning Israel's brutal attacks on Gaza.

However, the YFS insists that it was right to expose the aggressive bargaining tactics of the university administration.

During the strike, YFS campaigned to have student tuition fees refunded and have provided strike relief for students.

But right-wing forces are attempting to roll back the campaigning organisational structure on the campus.

The mainstream media coverage trivialised the many students who showed support and organised in solidarity with CUPE 3903 members.

Significantly, many members of CUPE 3903 involved in the strike were also students themselves.

Student solidarity protests and sit-ins were organised. News of the strike was supplied through alternative media, like the York Free Press, a newspaper to provide a left discussion place for York students.

By suppressing the strike, the provincial government showed that as the economic outlook worsens, workers' rights will be trampled upon.

It has shown that it would rather break strikes than address the root problems that cause the strikes in the first place.

The York University strike exposed the fact that the struggles of workers and students in the tertiary education system are different facets of the same fight for justice.

Greater unity and collaboration between workers and students is a condition for a future, successful struggle for a free universal public education system.

If any meaningful movement toward the reinstatement of public funding to the university system is possible, it will take collective work from both students and labour to force governments to abandon the neoliberal policies guiding the sector.

[Stu Harrison is a former student at York University].

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