Strike and Reclamation

Building Power in the Fight Against the Corporate University

On March 5, 2018, members of CUPE 3903, the union representing contract faculty and teaching assistants at York University in Toronto, voted to take strike action against York after months of bargaining with the university had stalled and concessions remained on the table. Over the next 143 days, the university continued to stonewall the union until the newly elected Doug Ford provincial Conservative government circumvented the process of collective bargaining to pass unconstitutional back-to-work legislation on July 25, 2018.

Over the course of this protracted struggle, hundreds of workers maintained eight physical picket lines and an organizational and communications headquarters while undergraduates in support of the teachers reclaimed and continuously occupied the university Senate chambers for three months. Union members were also engaged in bird-dogging Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and the creation of an unsanctioned community garden—the “Big Gay Garden”—at York’s front entrance, while union members and undergraduate “reclaimers” engaged in civil disobedience, disrupted official university events, and visited the offices of the Board of Governors to hold them accountable to the broader community. After the strike, York University administration pursued reprisals on eight student-activists for their organizing during the strike using the student code of conduct. York eventually lost its suit against the “York Eight” when a court ruled that the university violated several of the defendents’ legal rights. Meanwhile, the Ford government has mandated the implementation of “free speech” policies on campuses across Ontario while the results of the forced arbitration have led to losses by CUPE 3903.

For this roundtable I sat down with Chelsea Bauer, a bargaining team member of CUPE 3903; Karl Gardner, executive member and chief steward; Susannah Mulvale, a rank-and-file organizer; and Karmah Dudin, an undergraduate student activist and member of Reclaim YorkU; to reflect upon last year’s fight against the corporatization of universities in general and the fight at York in particular.

Karl Gardner is an organizer and PhD candidate based in Toronto. He is a member of No One Is Illegal-Toronto and works with Upping the Anti. His political and academic work mainly focuses on migrant justice, Indigenous solidarity, and social movements in Canada.

Chelsea Bauer is an active unionist and staff representative in the post-secondary sector who believes that member-driven union activism and a strong student movement are vital as the post-secondary sector ramps up to challenge the Ford Government.

Susannah Mulvale is a PhD student in Critical Studies of Psychology at York University. She is currently Co-Chair of the Trans Feminist Action Caucus of CUPE 3903 and a Councillor for the York University Graduate Students’ Association. She is also an organizer with the Foodsters United union drive.

Karmah Dudin is a student at York University and a labour organizer with CUPE 1365-2, involved primarily with solidarity work and organizing student workers on campus. Karmah has had experiences challenging the corporate nature of the university via direct action and running to be the undergraduate representative on the Board of Governors at York University.

To read this article in full, purchase your copy of Upping the Anti here.