6. 28. 2023

Between Rupture and Settlement

Neil Braganza

Living in a capitalist society involves being reminded repeatedly that our jobs and lives are precarious. Though our basic survival and well-being depend on finding a job and complying with the terms of employment, our workplaces are under constant pressure to cut costs, restructure, and get rid of as many of us as possible. The recent strike by approximately 2000 graduate student workers and 800 sessional instructors (contract faculty) in the union local CUPE 3903 at York University, which ran from February 26 to April 19, 2024, presents us with a case study of the contradictions that arise when a union confronts this predicament. How should workers decide when to fight restructuring and defend their needs, and when to accommodate that restructuring?


The attack on sessional teaching and its resistance from below

For two years leading up to the 2024 strike, union reps in CUPE 3903 unwisely participated in informal and off-the-record talks with the university on the subject of how to manage the precarity of sessional teaching. The union’s bargaining team emerged from these talks with what became known as a “job stability program” (JSP), a proposal for “stabilizing” sessional work in the context of the university’s effort to restructure the workplace so as to exclude long-service, aging employees, whose health benefits and pension plans represent growing costs. The union put its JSP forward as a bargaining demand on November 24, 2023. Less than a week later, the university responded with its own, more elaborate version of the program. 

While the union and university each claimed to oppose the other’s JSP, the mechanics of precarity at the core of both versions of the program were the same. Those who taught the least would almost certainly lose their jobs, and those who taught the most would see their work drop by half or even two thirds. These job losses would help “stabilize” work around a low minimum for any sessionals who remained, while giving the university much broader discretion in hiring. In other words, both sides of the bargaining table proposed something that effectively eliminated the prospect of making a living as a sessional at York. (There were other problems, too.)

The union’s bargaining team did not make the restructuring (not to mention union-busting) character of the JSP explicit when they unveiled it at a general membership meeting on November 22, 2023. On the contrary, they presented the JSP as a progressive initiative that would improve the situation of members of equity groups (women and Indigenous, disabled, Black, racialized, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people). Job redistribution and restructuring mechanisms in the JSP were couched in progressive rhetoric that appealed to the union’s longstanding, praiseworthy efforts to make anti-oppression politics central to its organizing and mobilizing. It took rank-and-file members a few days before they realized, with some alarm, that they had voted to cut jobs and increase precarity across the entire spectrum of sessional instructors at York, including those from equity groups. 

With this discovery, rank-and-file sessionals faced three intertwined strategic challenges. 

First, given that frustrations in the local were mounting over the university’s refusal to provide an overdue wage increase to help workers cope with the skyrocketing cost of living in Toronto (more on that later), a strike vote was only a few weeks away. That meant the union’s wage demands were part of a package that now also included a demand that would attack sessional jobs. Getting our union to drop the JSP would require mounting internal opposition to our own bargaining team just as strike mobilizations for wages were getting started. And that opposition would need to be explained to grad student comrades who were unfamiliar with many of the intricacies of sessional hiring and their restructuring. It was not surprising, then, that strike activists were often puzzled by the critique of the bargaining team from sessionals rising up against the JSP. Some interpreted that opposition as an anti-strike reaction by those with the relative privilege to weather the storm of the affordability crisis in Toronto. But even if sessionals were able to mount a successful challenge to the bargaining team in the face of these internal misunderstandings, the battle would need to be fought all over again at the bargaining table against an employer who insisted not only on implementing the JSP, but on denying wage demands, too.

The second strategic problem was that fighting the JSP would require difficult conversations with colleagues about how equity on paper may not be equity in practice. Most sessionals at first accepted their bargaining team’s framing of the JSP as a progressive equity initiative and were puzzled by opposition to it – with some even seeing that pushback as privilege asserting itself against efforts to address the systemic oppression of marginalized groups. Articulating a critique of the JSP required not only exposing how the program’s intricacies attacked all sessional instructors (including equity groups and the local’s most precarious members); it required, at first, tolerating being labelled a reactionary while doing so.

The third problem was the difficulty of explaining the workings of the JSP itself, which in the university’s version was a maze of over 100 clauses that interacted in indirect and complex ways with existing hiring practices. The union’s version was accompanied by communications that, while helpful in their critique of sessional precarity at York, clouded issues by proposing a cure that was worse than the disease. The union’s initial account of the employer’s JSP downplayed and obscured its problems, too. Contract negotiations are difficult to follow at the best of times, but even the most motivated and savvy radical’s eyes glazed over when conversations on the picket line turned to clarifying a position on the JSP.

The only way to deal with these three interacting challenges was to engage in relentless critique of the JSP and its restructuring agenda, whether it was proposed by the university or the union itself. At first, that meant refusing to stand with the union’s consensus, raising hell against it, and thereby straining relations with some comrades. A few of us with a record of militancy in the local called for an immediate halt to strike mobilizations until the union dropped its JSP demand. We refused to fight for more precarity as though it were job security.

Mounting resistance to the JSP from below meant focusing always on the impact the program would have on people’s lives. To repeat: under the JSP, those who teach the least almost certainly would have lost their jobs, those who teach the most would have had their work cut by as much as half or two thirds, and these job losses would have helped “stabilize” work around a low minimum for those who remain, while granting the university much broader discretion in hiring. Every layer of the membership that would have been adversely affected by the JSP includes members of equity groups. Rank-and-file sessionals worked to demystify the JSP at each opportunity provided by CUPE 3903’s very fortunate tradition of open bargaining – in weekly general members’ meetings, open bargaining meetings, on the picket line, over email and social media – and ultimately defeated it both in the union and at the bargaining table. Though the bargaining team listened to the membership, it did try to suspend open bargaining and move to confidential lawyer-to-lawyer talks, but rank-and-file members stopped them. Mobilizations from below also sparked conversations beyond the local that led another campus union – the York University Faculty Association – to join the campaign against the JSP and launch its own grievance against it.

Had CUPE 3903 reps focused on resisting restructuring rather than accommodating it, sessional mobilizations from below may have had a different character in the strike. Certainly more trust would have developed between rank-and-file sessionals and their bargaining team, freeing us to focus on demands to create more jobs by reducing class sizes and ensuring that new sections of courses are opened up when it makes pedagogical sense to do so. Such demands would benefit equity groups, as would programs to increase compensation for members facing systemic barriers that limit how much teaching they can take on. These and other measures could have been the basis of a coalition of interests across the membership, contributing to a campus-wide movement to prioritize teaching and learning over investments in new buildings, reduce administrative bloat, and campaign for better funding from the provincial government. Those possibilities remain, but so do the pressures to contain them.


Wages and working-class power

Like the resistance from below to the JSP,  the union’s struggle for higher wages illustrates the dilemma that workers face when deciding between defending their needs or accepting terms that accommodate the employer’s austerity agenda.

CUPE 3903’s initial bargaining position on wages addressed what members need in order to cope better with the intensifying affordability crisis in cities such as Toronto, where the rising costs of living have far outpaced any growth in our wages. Public sector workers were also hit by Ontario’s Bill 124, which capped wages at 1% per year, 4% less than the average annual rate of inflation between September 2020 and September 2023. Because Bill 124 was subsequently deemed unconstitutional, the union’s initial demand was for a wage increase that would recover losses from inflation during the years Bill 124 was in effect and keep up with projected inflation over the course of the new contract. 

In other words, members mobilized for a strike to restore and protect the purchasing power of their wages. This refusal to sacrifice basic human needs to the operation of business as usual created a rupture in capitalist social relations, generating ever-deeper motivations among strikers as they brought their issues forward to the university community and worked together to deal with the slew of practical and political problems that went into maintaining their struggle.

But launching a strike also triggers social and legal pressures to reach a settlement, return to work, and suture the rupture. Once the strike got underway, different calculations emerged on the wage question. Instead of thinking about demands in terms of how they would protect wages from being eroded by inflation, the question became how our wage demands compared to what other locals have received across the university sector. This shift in the frame of reference saw the union’s demands through the eyes of a state-mandated arbitrator looking at general trends across different workplaces and collective agreements – rather than at what people on strike are saying they need. Forced arbitration was a real threat, given the provincial government’s demonstrated willingness to legislate CUPE 3903 back to work, as it did in 2008 and 2018.

Under the threat of state-imposed arbitration, not to mention the growing costs of the strike for the union and individual members, tension grew between the desire to sustain the strike mobilization and the desire to reach a negotiated settlement at the bargaining table. In the end, there was a pivot from rupture to settlement, and the union won wage increases that are sector-leading but far below the rate of inflation. In the context of open bargaining practiced by CUPE 3903, where there is a strong customary expectation that the bargaining team will consult and take direction from the membership, that pivot turned on how members collectively evaluated the extent of their leverage over the university.

On the one hand, members experienced their leverage in how during the strike most classes were suspended, campus activities were disrupted, and construction projects at the university’s established and new campuses were sometimes delayed. Meanwhile, the union’s message – shared over social media, at picket lines, through direct actions – poked holes in the university’s branding and promoted the legitimacy of our demands. 

On the other hand, members identified limits to our leverage by pointing out that since 1999, York has successfully weathered the costs of strikes at a rate of one strike every 3-7 years. In 2018 it cancelled an entire term of summer teaching, which hurt sessionals who depend on that work but likely had little impact on university revenue, as it only delayed students’ access to courses they needed to graduate. With the growth of online teaching since the pandemic began, increased infrastructure and skills are now in place to allow people to cross picket lines virtually. Following the precedent it set in 2018, the York University Senate ruled that students in courses affected by the 2024 strike were permitted to finish with only 70% of the syllabus completed, which weakened the impact of disruptions. While strikes have caused drops in revenue from enrolment, those drops have been temporary. It was for all these reasons that, rather than meet the union’s demands, the university could afford to wait for back-to-work legislation to impose much lower terms of settlement through an arbitrator.

What was difficult about the strike was that, even though these two lines of reasoning about our leverage over the university pulled us in opposite directions, both were valid. The question of power, alas, will remain undecided until working-class movements between and across workplaces rise up and resolve it. Orienting ourselves to that possibility means talking about political motivations that run deeper than the narrow terms of labour-contract negotiations and collective bargaining. Those deeper sources are world-making yet ungovernable. They make strikes possible and sustainable. They spark the emotional and intellectual labour of a community that sees higher education as part of the struggle for social justice everywhere.

Neil Braganza is a sessional instructor currently teaching in the Humanities department at York University in Toronto. He was recently elected to the position of Lead Steward (Unit 2) on the CUPE 3903 Executive Committee. He has written for Spectre Journal and Upping the Anti.