Strike at York teaches Queen’s a lesson

York TAs and contract faculty strike, but some say a strike at Queen’s is less likely

TAFA organizer Amanda Wilson says if TAs at Queen’s are successful in unionizing, any strike that occurs would be a last resort.
TAFA organizer Amanda Wilson says if TAs at Queen’s are successful in unionizing, any strike that occurs would be a last resort.

Faculty, teaching assistants and graduate students at York University—all members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees—have been on strike since Nov. 5.

TAs at Queen’s are currently not unionized, but the potential for striking is one of the concerns raised by opponents of Teaching Assistant and Fellow Association’s (TAFA) unionization campaign.

If such a strike were to happen at Queen’s, vice-principal (academic) Patrick Deane said it’s difficult to predict what would happen because there’s no precedent.

“Since we’re not in a position to expect such a thing, there’s no university-wide policy to address this,” he said. “But you can be sure that in the different faculties where issues have occurred and units have been required to do without TAs, they have developed plans to deal with that eventuality.”

Deane said students would feel the ramifications of a strike more heavily than anyone else.

“The principle effect of these strikes is an interruption to the teaching mission of the university which, of course, is the intended goal of the strike,” he said, adding that a strike is a last resort for all parties.

“I think the lesson of what going on at the other campus is how important it is for all parties to maintain open channels of communication.”

Deane said concerns involving TAs are usually resolved by the Teaching Assistant Advisory Committee.

“We have the Teaching Assistant Advisory Committee in place–a number of measures have been put in place at Queen’s to address the issues of TAs. Most of those issues in past years have tended to be aired at that committee.”

CUPE local 254 treasurer Dave Kempson, whose union represents between 600 and 700 technicians, maintenance staff and library employees at Queen’s, said strikes only occur when sides are unable to come to an agreement.

“The only time you get to a strike is when bargaining breaks down.”

Kempson said the strike at York doesn’t necessarily reflect the objectives of other CUPE locals.

“Each local is autonomous and they determine what their bargaining requirements are and what their strategies are. It’s a very upsetting thing for both the members that are on strike and for the students at York.”

TAFA, which represents TAs and TFs that want to unionize at Queen’s, released a statement on Nov. 7 supporting the right of TAs at York to strike.

TAFA organizer Amanda Wilson, ArtSci ’07, said the York strike hasn’t had a significant effect on TAFA’s efforts.

But, the strike does mean TAFA will receive more attention, Wilson said.

“That’s often when you’ll hear about unions in mass media, when there is a strike.”

Wilson agreed that if TAs at Queen’s are successful in unionizing, any strike that occurs would be a last resort.

“It would only come about if the vast majority of people were in favour of such an action.”

Wilson said strikes can only take place when a collective agreement is being renegotiated. She said most agreements last between three and five years.

Wilson said strikes provide an opportunity for both sides to reevaluate their priorities.

“I think it gives a chance for both sides to reflect and really decide how important these issues are for them.”

A TA strike at Queen’s might not be as dramatic as the action at York, Wilson said, because the York strike includes contract faculty in addition to TAs.

“At Queen’s, TAs play a very vital role, but I’m not sure if it would be as immediate.”

Jeff Welsh, Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) president, said he’s not aware of any large-scale actions involving TAs at Queen’s.

Welsh said TA strikes at most Canadian universities are uncommon.

“York is noted for very bad relations with the administration, so York is very, very unusual,” he said. “At most universities, strikes are very, very rare. I mean, there are many universities that have TA unions that have never, ever striked.”

Richard Greenfield, chair of the department of history, said his department has no plans for what would be done if TAs were to strike.

Greenfield said unionization shouldn’t be viewed as automatically leading to a strike.

“The assumption that if a group unionizes there will be a strike is not one I would make,” he said, adding that Queen’s faculty have been unionized for more than 10 years and has never striked.

—with files from Erin Flegg

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