Spoiled Opportunities: Insights from the 2015 Strikes at York University and the University of Toronto

Thomas Chiasson-LeBel and Christian Pépin

Employers are clever. They use the fact that public services are increasingly financed through regressive user fees instead of progressive taxation to divide us­—we are either taxpayers wanting more services for every dollar we pay, or workers defending undue corporatist privileges causing deficits and debts—often pitting worker against worker. This divisive scheme creates anti-union sentiment and legitimizes both “back to work” legislations and the privatization of public services. In the face of this hostility, conflicts in the public sector take up the strategic challenge of transforming immediate battles for better collective agreements into struggles for the improvement of social rights and services for society as a whole.

This political concern was at the centre of a movement within our union during the winter of 2015, when simultaneous strikes disrupted the two largest universities in the country. As their collective agreements had expired around the same dates, and negotiations were similarly stalled, the majority of academic employees in their respective universities, members of theCanadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 3902 (University of Toronto) and 3903 (York University)2 went on strike to win a living wage, improve job security for contract faculty, and solve equity issues. The strike at York, which concluded after less than a month on March 30, 2015, made important steps toward better working conditions and conditions of study, while the University of Toronto strike ended in a binding arbitration resulting in halfway financial gains that were announced later in the summer.3 The strikes involved some important actions to promote an alternative vision of the role of universities to widen their support and shift the balance of forces. But an assessment of their partial victories has to review the wider conditions of struggle in the university sector. We question whether unions are appropriately structured to develop collective and democratic capacities to wage a wider battle for the right to post-secondary education. While simultaneous strikes in the two largest universities in Canada represented a favourable context of struggle, institutional limits of unions spoiled an opportunity for a greater mobilization against the commodification of higher education in the province and the country.

This article does not present a detailed account of the strikes, but rather an analysis of the conflicts in light of these strategic concerns. It is informed both by our experiences as active rank and file participants in this strike and our past involvement in the student movement in Québec.4 This exercise will not be a mere appraisal of the radicalism of the unions’ immediate demands, nor of the extent to which these have been won. It will rather offer a more complex analysis of the solidarities, actions, and strategies developed during the conflicts in order to assess their contribution and limits to the development of a wider struggle against the neoliberalization of universities.

In Defense of Social Movement Unionism

To understand our reading of the strikes it is useful to begin with David Camfield’s typology of union practices.5 We identify the most with his definition of social movement unionism, and later we will show how this typology is useful to interpret the strike at York University. Camfield describes social movement unionism as a form of labour activism that relies on direct democracy, engaged members’ militancy, community organizing, and solidarity across movements. Through a practical commitment to these principles, it seeks to achieve radical socioeconomic and political change. This form of unionism is the most effective way to build class identities and capacities in order to overcome fragmentation and demobilization among workers. Social movement unionism can break with the low expectations and demoralization nurtured by the widespread labour defeats under neoliberalism.

While social movement unionism is suited to workers’ struggles across all sectors of employment, it is particularly appropriate for public sector disputes (healthcare, education, etc.). The working conditions in public institutions have a direct impact on the quality of services provided. When services become commodities financed through growing user fees, improved working conditions can appear to be contrary to accessibility. Neoliberal discourse depicts public sector workers as privileged employees defending their exclusive interests, as opposed to the well-being of the people, defined as “hard-working, honest and over-burdened tax-payers”—as if union members were not themselves citizens who use public services. To oppose these assaults on workers, union strategies must connect bargaining to wider campaigns for free, accessible, and quality public services for all, financed through progressive taxation. Social movement unionism is effective because it advocates bridging the workplace with multiple facets of community experience and organizing.6

Social movement unionism requires direct democracy, which means that the supreme decision-making body of the union is the general assembly, where each member has the right to vote and can raise, speak, and vote on the issues of their choice according to the rules of order. The Executive Committee of a union is not a representative body of elected members who decide on the strategy that will eventually be rubber-stamped and followed by the members. Rather, the assembly of members is the main deliberative body and the Executive Committee’s role is to execute the assembly’s decisions. Direct democracy, a model largely practiced in the Québec student movement, is necessary for the membership to feel both responsible for, and empowered by, the decisions made by the union. This form of democracy is the most appropriate tool against top-down mobilization that does not empower participants, or social discourse that is not supported by any activism. Social movement unionism, through its direct democratic practices, is best suited for rebuilding a collective power on the basis of workers’ participation in, and identification with, their unions. This is necessary in order to transform the widespread perception of the union as an insurance policy paid for by union dues and performed by professional bureaucrats towards a view of our unions as empowering modes of collective organization for workers who are part of a wider community. Finally, it is most adapted to effectively challenge neoliberalism through changing the balance of class power in our favour; through democratic mass mobilizations.

Debating Varieties of Unionism

Social movement unionism differs from business unionism, which sees its raison d’être as centered around negotiating better collective agreements in the name of workers. It privileges cooperation with employers, defends an electoralist approach to politics, and sees charitable activities as its main link with “the community.”

In a sense, all unions are “business unions” because of the way in which they were historically institutionalized. Social movement unionism represents a practical challenge to business unionism because while it does not renounce negotiating collective agreements, it refuses to see it as its sole raison d’être. This is even more important in the context where unionism itself is put into question, and the capacity for winning better contracts is progressively undermined by the neoliberal offensive from employers and the state. In the context of York’s strike, the limits of “business unionism” were most visible through attempts at dividing collective bargaining issues from wider debates over the future of post-secondary education.

Social movement unionism also differs from social unionism. These approaches can seem similar as both focus on involvement in wider social struggles, beyond collective bargaining. But social unionism relies on the same tactics and strategies as business unionism. A former president of a teachers federation in Québec (FNEEQ) captured the limits of this approach by saying, in a speech to his organization, that the “nice and progressive positions [adopted by his federation] are mostly good at feeding the website of the organization” rather than at translating into mass struggles.7 This kind of unionism accurately describes the practices of CUPE National and the provincial student federation in Ontario, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O). Despite progressive agendas, these organizations failed to see the strikes of the two largest universities in Canada as a golden opportunity to develop a social movement in Ontario on the issue of accessible quality education. Finally, the most difficult and confusing distinction is between social movement unionism and mobilization unionism. The latter approach emphasizes the mobilizing of the wider membership of unions and builds cross-movement solidarities, but is limited by a top-down approach. While it acts to increase members’ participation in general assemblies, strike votes, and demonstrations, it tends to dismiss the importance of self-organizing and the democratic capacities of workers. This form of unionism corresponds to the practices of the 2014-2015 elected CUPE 3903 Executive Committee during the strike, when it contributed to the involvement of members in departments traditionally less associated with activism, but through a discourse that undermined union democracy and downplayed the legitimacy of the general assembly.

Strike Demands

The strikes that rattled these two Toronto universities have to be understood as a limited, but nonetheless real, opposition to the commodification of education. They aimed to ensure the widest accessibility to graduate education by promoting a decent standard of living, better job security for contract faculty, and employment equity for LGBT students and workers.

The unions at the two institutions demanded improvements in job security for contract faculty, also members of the same union, although in a different unit with its own collective agreement. At York, after one week of striking, the employer’s bargaining team improved its offer notably by improving job security for contract faculty with the most seniority. This employer offer was accepted by a majority of contract faculty, leaving teaching and graduate assistants, members of different units, to strike without them.
The demand for an increase in funding support for students—enough for them to reach the poverty line—was at the heart of the University of Toronto strike. At York, the question of funding was also a primary issue: on the one hand, by the demand for an increase in funding from $9,000 to $15,000 for graduate assistants, who for the most part are Master’s students; on the other hand, by defending an article in the collective agreement that limits the possibility of the employer to use tuition fee increases to claw back salaries. This “tuition indexation” provision warrants further explanation.

Funding indexation was initially won by CUPE 3903 in a strike that brought the university to a standstill in 2000-2001. An almost three-month strike resulted in a guarantee from the employer that any increase in tuition fees would be compensated by an equivalent increase in wages and other financial benefits aimed towards graduate student union members. Without this clause, any funding increases written into the collective agreement would be eventually eaten away by increases in tuition, which are already the highest in the country.8 Thus, both the wage level for a majority of academic workers at York, and the accessibility to graduate studies, depend on this clause.

This provision was respected until 2013, when the York administration raised tuition fees for incoming international graduate students without funding compensation—an increase of $7,000 in 2014. With their income withheld by the University to pay for the fee increase, these students found themselves engaged in a process reminiscent of indentured labour. This violation of the funding indexation was undoubtedly the primary driver of the York strike.

Nevertheless, as it only protects current union members, tuition indexation has unfortunately become a much-defended last-resort safety net, increasingly becoming corporatist in nature. Beyond immediate demands, it is important to question the extent to which the recent strikes at York and the University of Toronto challenged the process of commodification of knowledge that affects all participants in universities. We need to ask: to what extent have the strategies and means of actions put forward during the strike created favourable political conditions for taking this battle further?

These questions are especially important since workers’ unions cover students in an increasing variety of situations. From research and graduate assistants, to teaching assistant and contract faculties, they include most of the precarious academic work. Although providing a balm for the wound of increasing wages, will the existence of increasing tuition fees be challenged by forcing employers to provide health insurances, leaves, funds, and many other advantages concealed in the collective agreements? Are unions able to fight for a free quality education for all, not just the members? How can they play a better role in the fight against the commodification of education and knowledge?

In Defence of Union Democracy

Over the years, CUPE 3903’s militancy at York has resulted in one of the strongest collective agreements in the sector. This militancy goes along with a tradition of social movement unionism that was nonetheless threatened by the bitter end of the 2008-9 strike and subsequent events. At the time, a three-month strike ended in “back to work” legislation, in the context where the union was attempting to wage the battle for accessible education while being alone on strike. Moreover, questionable local management of strike dues during this period led to the local being taken over by CUPE National due to its financial precarity, resulting in significant demobilization.

In response to these past events, the elected CUPE 3903 Executive Committee9 supported a change in strategy which challenged the democratic roots of the union’s historical legacy. Practicing mobilization unionism, the Executive Committee pursued a top-down approach to mobilizing members into general assemblies and union actions without empowering them. The Executive Committee targeted “less-active” and “less-militant” academic departments to get a strong strike mandate vote as leverage to avoid a prolonged strike. This strategy obtained the highest rate of support for a strike mandate vote when compared to three similar votes held in the last ten years. Yet, this strategy and the pressure exerted by CUPE National led a majority of Executive Committee members to cast the activist left of the union as unrepresentative of its members. Democracy and membership control were equated with mismanagement as union activists were associated with the failure of the previous strike. The Executive Committee sought to centralize power, and reduce the role of general membership meetings to the point of compromising its legitimacy and powers (for example, appointing missing bargaining team members rather than holding elections). This provides a clear example of the limits of mobilization unionism we described earlier: the active involvement of members is sought in order to create pressure, but not to empower them.
Representing a significant break with the democratic traditions of the union,10 this behaviour of the Executive Committee paradoxically engendered a reinforcement of solidarity among rank and file members to have the decisions taken in general membership meetings be respected and to maintain leverage against the university administration. Moreover, the university administration could hardly claim that the union was run by a leftist elite as proposals by the Executive Committee to accept the employer’s offer after one week of striking were overturned by a majority of members.11

This tension with the Executive Committee had the effect, however, of stripping the membership-controlled decision-making bodies of their role in the determination of the overall strike strategies. General meetings were effectively devoted to maintaining their own legitimacy in the face of the local and CUPE National instead of debating proposals for action that were able to improve the balance of power. This likewise contributed to limiting the capacity of strikers to direct their activity towards a wider social mobilization regarding the role of post-secondary education in contemporary society. Yet, paradoxically, the executive had supported a communication campaign precisely in this regard.

While breaking with the limits of lobbyism and narrow corporatist discourse (read: business unionism), the Executive Committee failed to build a movement around post-secondary education that could transcend collective bargaining beyond good intentions expressed in press releases and online videos (read: social unionism). By curtailing democratic control (read: mobilization unionism), it prevented the alchemy of connections between progressive demands and empowered mobilized members to produce a social movement that could go beyond its own basis. This is why direct democracy is so important to social                                                               movement unionism.

This situation had also been facilitated by a weaker culture of general assemblies in Ontario as compared to the student activist culture in Québec, where democratic collective capacities and solidarities are commonly used to build leverage in accord with social movement unionism. This democratic tradition was crucial for building the strong internal legitimacy of the 2012 six-month student strike in Québec, where students in each institution often met weekly in general assembly to strategize over both the local concerns and the direction of the movement as a whole.12 This is in stark contrast with Ontario, where two dominant forms of student organizing prevail: (a) affinity groups or student clubs that may be horizontal but without a broad mass base; and (b) representative democracy of pan-campus federations. The latter are mostly federated within the umbrella organisation Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) that privileges lobbying as a mode of action with university administrations and governments. The fact that during the 2015 CUPE 3903 strike, solidarity with undergraduate students was built outside of the campus federation and the CFS illustrates how ineffectual they were in formulating movement and solidarity- building strategies.

An Ambiguous balance of power

The Fetish of the Picketline

The tension between CUPE National and the local Executive Committee on the one side, and the union rank and file on the other, resulted in an ambiguous balance of power. An important illustration of this was the role conferred to picketing during the strike. Although this is a traditional tactic of the union movement, our concern is to question its presumed effectiveness, especially for purposes of outreach, solidarity-building, mass-mobilization, and ultimately, disruption.

According to CUPE National’s rules, strikers had to do a minimum of 16 hours of picketing per week, spread out over four different days, in order to receive strike pay—despite the fact that the majority of the employees on strike had been hired on contracts of less than 10 hours per week, a good portion of which is done at home.13 Moreover, during the first two weeks of the strike, the York administration chose to suspend academic activities. The strikers therefore found themselves picketing an almost deserted campus, located on the edge of the city, far from public attention.The picketing of the campus transformed the university into a prohibited zone, a place to be avoided rather than a place and a public institution to be re-appropriated.14

The strike pay structure, centred solely on picket duty, dissuaded activists from developing strategies adapted to win wider support from the broader population. This situation illustrates some of the limits of CUPE National’s social unionism: despite advocating for various progressive reforms in education, CUPE National’s rules confined our local to the same tactics and strategies used by business unionism.

Transcending Limits

Despite these obstacles, three initiatives sought to expand the conflict and turn it into a broader social issue. Rank and file members produced a newspaper, The Penguin,15 featuring articles on the right to education and increases in the cost of living in Toronto such as housing and transportation. Tens of thousands of copies were distributed to Toronto residents, mainly at subway entrances, and inviting them to a mass demonstration for the right to accessible and quality education. Nevertheless, participation in this demonstration (by more than 1,000 people) remained mostly confined to the union members on strike. A week later, a “long march” was organized, during which strikers from York and the University of Toronto marched on city streets between these campuses (around 10km). These initiatives were organized by members who felt that they had to win them over from their local executive and CUPE National. With the exception of these actions, spaces of coordination for union action between the York and University of Toronto unions were non-existent, even as both belonged to CUPE. As an organization supposedly designed to federate unions, CUPE missed an opportunity to transform solidarity in principle into effective actions.

Another important missed opportunity was with CFS-Ontario, who also represented most of the striking workers, but as students. At the beginning of the strike, CFS-Ontario representatives were doing their annual lobbying week with the provincial and federal governments in order to propose, notably, ways to reduce tuition fees. This campaign certainly received favourable media coverage; however, this lobbying did not feature any call for any major demonstration, and did not escalate pressure tactics. This spoiled opportunity reveals the limits of a model of organization (read: social unionism) that does not lend itself to engage in a solidarity struggle, even when demands are similar.

Economic Pressures

In the end, the York strike was able to apply sufficient pressure on the administration. The 2015 Pan-American Summer games may have been relevant, given how the strike threatened to extend classes into the summer, when the campus would be a site of a number of athletics venues built for the games. It certainly was the case that a prolonged strike would have forced the reorganization of the university calendar, entailing additional costs, especially given solidarity from undergrads who challenged the administration’s plans to re-open classes despite the strike being unresolved. In various respects, a great share of the strike power was derived from the solidarities developed in parallel to the union structure.

A Surprise Victory

Because of the aforementioned internal tensions between rank and file members and the Executive Committee, as well as the ambiguities in the balance of power between the union and the University, York’s union victory came as a surprise. Tuition indexation was strengthened with a promise to reimburse international students who had been subject to premature tuition hikes.16 Research assistants received an increase in their funding and LGBT was recognized along the same lines as visible minorities, women, Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities. Without a doubt it was the determination of union members who rejected the low-ball offers recommended by their respective executives in the first weeks of the strike, at York just as much as at the University of Toronto, which caused such a positive outcome.

On the University of Toronto front, members returned to work while resolving to accept the outcome of the binding arbitration decision. Despite not winning an increase in the guaranteed funding, the members of the union won $1 million in two bursary funds to which they can apply. Their situation was rendered more difficult by an administration that never suspended classes and was willing to hire undergraduates as scabs to do the work of teaching assistants.

Perspectives: Toward a Pan-Ontarian Movement

While the strike at York generally maintained conditions that sought to ensure accessibility to graduate education, it was not able to foster a convergence of social forces around the question of higher education, particularly ways to improve its accessibility and diminish its commodification, despite creative efforts by union members. In this respect, the York strike reached the limits of social unionism, a model that, while being ready to discursively commit itself to promotion of the public sector and the services it offers, nevertheless remains focused on local work-related action at the expense of a broader mobilization. Its political philosophy places more emphasis on representative democracy rather than the empowerment of the membership to shift the overall balance of power. The local Executive Committee’s tendency toward mobilization unionism also contributed to curtailing the empowerment of the membership through the struggle.

Collective agreements are necessarily orchestrated around work-related issues. Nevertheless, this need not confine a union to cast such a narrow focus. It’s in this sense that York’s union became one of the most effective vehicles to defend access to graduate education in Ontario. This accessibility, however, is mostly limited to the members of the union. This is why tuition indexation should be interpreted as a last resort safety net in the context where Ontario’s highest tuition fees in Canada have become the new norm. From this perspective, the key strategic question should now be how to move from a defensive struggle on the preservation of tuition indexation for the few, to a social movement fighting effectively for free quality education for all.

To this end, any campaign to broaden access to all levels of education should begin by taking account of the already existing organizations in place. Indeed, it is here that a greater coordination between union locals is essential. The overlapping strikes at York and University of Toronto were a golden opportunity that finally regressed, in the absence of better coordination, into a missed opportunity. A serious effort within CUPE to democratically establish common demands and tactics across locals would be a step in the right direction. Such an approach would, from the outset, ensure that the question of higher education would be raised as a provincial issue rather than one confined to a localized expression.

A coordinated union movement is, however, no substitute for a democratic and well-mobilized student movement. Unions are at pains to offer an adequate platform for undergraduate students who, unlike graduate students employed by their universities, are in a different relationship. In this sense, the creation of general assemblies uniting both undergraduate and graduate students are a possibility that requires serious consideration. Coupled with a strategic escalation of pressure—including the possibility of a general student strike—it could lead to important political campaigns with the objective of making quality and accessible education a right for everyone in Ontario. Drawing on the Québec student movement experience, from general student assemblies, to the mass-mobilization based campaigns ranging from annual one-day strikes to unlimited general strikes, would surely be inspiring for bringing tuition fees in Ontario to lower levels. Of course, this should not be mechanically imported, and such a perspective would face many challenges. Nevertheless, this should not be used as an excuse for hiding behind over-estimated cultural and legal differences in terms of political organizing.

Widening the field of struggle of unions like CUPE 3903 and 3902 also requires that memberships reflect on just what kind of university they wish to strive for. In order to increase access to education at all levels, the model of a university that determines accessibility to graduate studies through an employment relationship needs to be questioned for its market driven approach. There is much work to be done in this respect since it would likely require a struggle, within the union, for a lessening of employment and an increase in accessibility through scholarships and bursaries. There is no simple solution to this question, but it has to be taken into consideration that over-reliance on the union form to defend accessibility renders more difficult the task of achieving greater solidarity with undergraduate students. In the meantime however, nothing prohibits the union from acting according to its own democratic criteria and, in so doing, setting an example for, and encouraging the democratization of other types of, student organizations.


1 An earlier version of this article was published as “Grève à l’Université York: ses victoires et ses limites à l’aune du syndicalisme de mouvement social,” in Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, 14 (2015): 203-212. It was originally translated by Michael K. Palamarek, Patrick Desjardins, and Nik Barry-Shaw, and further edited by Upping the Anti.
2 CUPE 3903 is comprised of 3,700 members organized in three units: full-time teaching-assistants; contract faculties; and research and graduate assistants. CUPE 3902 comprises similar groups and represents 8,000 academic workers.
3 Simona Chiose, “University of Toronto Wins Arbitration against Teaching -assistant Union”. Globe and Mail. July 6, 2015, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/university-of-toronto-wins-arbitration-against-teaching-assistant-union/article25332937/.
4 The authors have been involved in the Québec student movement between 1997 and 2009, at the local and national level, notably within Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ). Thomas Chiasson-LeBel has also taken part in the foundation of a union equivalent to CUPE 3903 and 3902 at UQAM, the SÉTUE.
5 David Camfield, Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement (Halifax: Fernwood, 2011), 51.
6 While this article is centered around a public sector dispute, this characteristic applies as much to private sector struggles. For example, collective bargaining in the auto or construction sectors would gain from building campaigns rooted in communities calling for a workers’ controlled ecological reconversion of industry (ex. electrial public transportation), public infrastructures, housing and productive facilities (see: Gindin, Sam. “Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism.” Socialist Register 49 (2013): 26–51.
7 Jean Trudelle, “Le mouvement syndical et l’action politique” Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, 13 (2015): 225. Our translation.
8 See Erika Shaker and David Macdonald, “Tier for Two: Managing the Optics of Provincial Tuition Fee Policies,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, September 2014, 32.
9 Despite a certain dissent amongst its members, we depict the Executive Committee as its dominant tendency.
10 As expressed by the article 8 of the bylaws: “The Executive Committee shall be the governing body of the local between membership meetings. It shall take such actions and render such decisions as may be necessary to fully carry out the decisions and instructions formulated at membership meetings of the local.”
11 The employer’s offer after one week of striking was rejected by about 60 percent of Unit 1 members (teaching assistants) and by more than 77 percent of Unit 3 members (graduate assistants), despite the Executive Committee’s favourable recommendation.
12 For a better understanding of the student movement in Québec, with an emphasis on the role of direct democracy and strike, see Alain Savard’s (PhD student in Political science at York, who was involved with us during the CUPE 3903 strike) piece “Keeping the strike alive” at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/Québec-student-strike-tuition-austerity-protests/.
13 This focus on the picket line also lead members who, for a variety of reasons, could not picket, to accuse the Executive Committee and CUPE national of ableist discrimination. There were certainly attempts to organize in support, but institutionalized obstacles within the union structure strengthened the feeling of organizational ableism.
14 For example, while an initiative called the “Free School” emerged, it could have had a much wider impact if it would have reappropriated the University to offer multiple workshops simultaneously to undergrads and the wider population as an expression of free education.
15 The newspaper was published on the Socialist Project website: www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/1091.php
16 At time of writing, however, the school’s administration is still trying to avoid its responsibilities towards international students. At the same time, the union is intensifying its effort to ensure that the agreement is respected.