Mar 12, 2015

Academic strike solidarity

Canadian academia is on a roll in the struggle to defend truly public quality education for all. TA’s and RA’s are on strike at York U and U of Toronto, and faculty are striking for their first contract at UNBC. We are at the forefront of fighting the global neoliberalization of the academy and the precarization of academic work.  University is where students learn what ‘work’ is like and what to expect and be willing to put up with throughout their work lives – so it is a crucial frontline in the broader struggle against precarity and for dignified work for all (a point well made by Alan Sears at a recent cupe3903 free school event).

I have been particularly inspired by the solidarity of York TAs, whose main demand is to keep the tuition indexation that currently ties tuition increases to equivalent salary increases. They have been offered a tuition freeze for themselves, but it would knock out the bottom rungs of the ladder for future students, who would continually have to pay more at the company store with the same salary. As Eve Haque put it at the free school, we know what groups are the first out when it becomes harder to go to graduate school. Not only are York TAs striking then to keep graduate school open to lower income and racialized students, but they are also explicitly asking for LGBTQ Equity Language.  I have been astounded that a university with a social justice mandate has been so intransigent on this request. Perhaps they think we are somehow not only ‘post-racial’ but also ‘post-gay’ – but surely even they can see that transgender people face employment hurdles? 

At any rate, the solidarity of the graduate students is deeply inspiring to me.  I am also moved and heartened by the solidarity of faculty, including the following letter from my own department at York in the face of administration attempts to force us back to teaching. 


We, the undersigned faculty members of the Department of Geography, feel strongly that the resumption of classes in Geography’s multiple programs during the current labour disruption is ill advised. The Department strongly urges the University Administration to continue working through the collective bargaining process and achieve a settlement before resuming any further courses. There are compelling pedagogical, safety, and ethical reasons for our position. 

1. Pedagogically, specifically in the discipline of Geography but others as well, there are a number of large classes (100s of students) where tutorials and labs are deeply integrated with lectures in first year offerings. Holding lectures without accompanying labs and tutorials is incomplete course content delivery. At the first year level, our new general education course (GEOG 1000) and other first year courses (GEOG 1400, GEOG 1410) are Teaching Assistant (TA) dependent offerings. There are many other courses in physical geography (at all year levels) that also include labs instructed by TAs. We cannot and will not perform TA tutorial duties. 
2. Tests and exams in several courses are not based solely on readings but on lecture content. TAs are often required to attend lectures so they can assist students and grade material. The absence of TAs during a labour disruption does not allow for lecture attendance. Further, the diminished undergraduate attendance that results from students refusing to cross a picket line to attend class (as Senate rules allow) limits what lecture content can be fairly examined. We cannot and will not perform TA exam grading duties. 

3. In order for students to progress through course material effectively, regular feedback must be given on previous tests and assignments. In some cases, students must receive feedback on one part of an assignment before they can complete it. Many tests and assignments from the first half of the winter semester have yet to be assessed by TAs. Again, we cannot and will not perform TA marker/grader duties. 

4. As students may refuse to cross a picket line without academic discipline or disadvantage, the resulting lower attendance threatens overall course integrity. For example, fourth year seminars (capped at 25 in Geography) with large discussion components are not easily carried out with low attendance. At the same time, students who miss discussions can’t easily reproduce the inclass learning experience. 

5. While Geography is not a large program, we do have members of Unit 1 teaching ‘ticketed’ winter semester courses through the exclusion program. These instructors will still be on strike and the classes will not resume with the others. We cannot and will not perform Unit 1 teaching duties. 

6. The last experience the Department had with the continuation of classes during a labour disruption was 20002001. During that time, attendance in classes was approximately 20% – this in a period when students had fewer protections via Senate regulations. The resultant remediation period was frustrating
for students and instructors as some material had to be repeated after the labour disruption in any case in order to ensure the academic integrity of the course and the program’s learning objectives. 

7. Safety for students and the entire York community is a major concern. Even the most disciplined picket lines have, can and, in all likelihood, will experience violence as people enter and exit campus. We have reports of one of our Geography TAs and others already being injured on the picket lines with classes cancelled. We imagine a much more tense situation if the Administration attempts to resume programs. Violence on York University’s campus is consistently captured by the media. Indeed, York’s reputation will only be further harmed by incidents that depict student against student conflict in what is already a divisive situation. 

8. Lastly we feel that there are ethical reasons for not resuming classes during a labour disruption. Picketing and the disruption of production and services through the withdrawal of labour are all legal and democratic tools workers in an unequal power relationship with employers have to guarantee reasonable working and living conditions. Attempting to resume normal activities in the face of pickets is counter to respected democratic values and principles. These sentiments were eloquently expressed in a recent letter from Osgoode Hall law students to their Dean. 

9. We are in solidarity with all students affected by the current labour disruption. These include: the graduate teaching assistants currently exercising their democratic right to strike; the 4000+ undergraduate students who have expressed that classes should not be continued during a labour disruption (many from LA&PS); undergraduates who regardless of their views on the strike deserve to be taught in stable conditions; and future graduate students in Geography and other disciplines who may very well benefit from what TAs are currently protecting through the collective bargaining process. 

For these reasons, we strongly urge that classes not be continued until the Administration expeditiously negotiates a settlement that ends the current labour disruption. 


Alison Bain
Ranu Basu
Richard Bello
Ulrich Best
Raju Das
Jennifer Hyndman
William Jenkins
Philip Kelly
Sara Koopman                    

Min-Jung Kwak
Elizabeth Lunstrum
Valerie Preston
Tarmo Remmel
André Robert
Robin Roth
Steven Tufts
Peter Vandergeest
Patricia Burke Wood

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