York strikers show the way — now let’s build a truly public university

Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding

The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.
Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle

York’s contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.

Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.

Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.

The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.

This is the indexation issue that management avoided discussion of for a month, the gain won by the union in previous strikes that management tried and failed to roll back. Indexation means that if the university wants to take more from TAs and GAs in tuition, it also has to pay TAs and GAs more money so that they can pay the university. Losing indexation would have meant that, rather than helping TAs and GAs subsist, their work on campus would merely give them the slightest reduction in the massive debt they would incur while studying.

The U.S. and U.K. systems, in which students at all levels incur ever more massive debt while receiving less and less, and with fewer and worse prospects after graduation, seems to be the model. The striking workers successfully held the line against that erosion.

The academic and the administrative

The York strike also highlighted the problem of a university no longer under academic control. This issue is of more public importance than it may seem on the surface.

Unlike most workplaces that are under the uncontested control of managers, at universities the struggle for academic freedom has been linked to another struggle, that for collegial governance, the idea that academic matters should be under the control of academics (faculty and also students) and not under the control of managers.

Defending collegial governance involves constant battles over policies and procedures, careful readings and debates, and can seem arcane and obscure to the non-university public. But collegial governance, like academic freedom, is an important thing for society to have, and it deserves some public attention — and protection. Let us look at it in the context of York’s strike.

The first way that the administration has strengthened itself has been by moving money. The erosion of the university’s teaching budget has been accompanied by an expansion in the administrative share of the budget. Budgets are contentious and political, and university administrations contest the notion that they are bloated at the expense of the university’s core activities. The analyses are worth looking at: Benjamin Ginsburg describes the growth of university administration at U.S. universities in his book The Fall of the Faculty, and scientist Bjorn Brembs tackles the issue in Germany in a blog post.

York’s faculty union, YUFA, did some interesting analysis of York’s financial statements. While not discussing academic and administrative budgets in detail, it does deal with how to think about the financial statements of a public institution. YUFA also produced a report that described the growth of managerialism.

The growth of the university’s administration at the expense of its academic mission is not solely a matter of money, as Ginsburg’s Fall of the Faculty documents. The growth of “student life” programs under the control of the administrative apparatus has seen students offered more programs in things like time management and study skills, while academic programs in languages, literature, or history are starved of resources. York University has a Senate that is the ultimate authority on academic matters, but the Senate does not have the power to decide what is and is not an academic matter — that is the prerogative of the administration.

Before the current strike, the York community was presented with apocalyptic budget projections (which have since been challenged by YUFA and CUPE) as well as warnings about low enrolments.

York’s administration imposed a process called the Academic and Administrative Prioritization and Review, or AAPR — another management tool that was imposed on other Canadian universities, such as Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan, to destructive effect. Several faculty councils at York repudiated the AAPR and rejected its use in academic planning. Like the strike, the AAPR ended up opening an overdue debate on administrative attacks on the academic mission of the university (see Michael Ornstein’s presentation for a fine example of applying academic criteria to a managerial exercise and Craig Heron’s essay on the consultant Robert Dickeson, whose methodology is used in AAPRs across North America).

Amazingly, in a context of enrolment and budget fears, the York administration walked into negotiations with CUPE 3903 seeking concessions that the union could not accept, and took over a month to make any movement towards an acceptable offer.

As an alternative to bargaining, the administration used a reading of the university’s policy on remediation — intended to provide guidance on how to restart the university after a disruption is over — to start remediating during the strike. The “remediation” ended up making students more uncertain, increasing physical pressure and fear of violence on the picket lines as thousands of drivers tried to cross daily to attend classes that may or may not have been proceeding.

For an administration worried about enrolment, it is difficult to imagine how this could have been anything other than a nightmare scenario — unless low enrolments themselves might provide another tool that administrators could use to discipline the academics?

York, a public university

Like every public institution, universities are changing. They are becoming more hierarchical, more corporate, less accessible, and less free. Defending their role, even expanding it, may not be possible from within their walls alone. But should the non-university-going public care?

Universities cost society massive amounts of resources, and everyone within them, from the administration to the student body, has some relative privilege compared to the many people who never get the chance to go. Scholars’ reputations for obscurity and detachment from the real world doesn’t make it easy for these same scholars to ask the public for resources or for help defending the institution. But public indifference to what is happening at universities only serves the administrators who are eroding them.

And truly public universities could be extremely socially beneficial. Take York again, and consider some 2006 figures that will not have changed much in the decade since. Located in North Toronto, York’s students come from families with a median household income of $55,881, compared to an average of $74,093 for all Ontario university families. The median household income for York students in 2006 was actually lower than the median household income for Ontario in 2005, which, at $72,734, was only slightly lower than the average for Ontario university-going families. Ryerson students came from slightly more affluent families ($56,733) and University of Toronto from slightly more affluent than that ($58,895). The contrast with universities such as Western and Queen’s, with median family incomes above $100,000, is striking.

More than 50 per cent of York’s students commute for more than 40 minutes, and 57 per cent of York’s first-year students rely on public transit to get to school, compared to 32 per cent of Ontario students. Of first-year York students, 60 per cent are female, compared to 55 per cent for Ontario. Of senior-year York students, 72 per cent work for pay off campus, compared to 46 per cent for Ontario; 43 per cent are from a visible minority compared to 29 per cent for Ontario. Where 70 per cent of Ontario students had a parent with post-secondary education, 65 per cent of York students could say the same.

For many decades in North America, universities were designed to train and prepare the ruling class and the professionals who serviced them. But starting after WWII, public universities started to open up and transform into places that potentially everyone could go. York’s demographics present a picture of that kind of public university, a place whose student body looks like the population and not like the rulers.

It may not be coincidental that at the most public of universities, there is a strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences — 53 per cent of first-year students compared to 38 per cent in Ontario, 51 per cent of senior-year students compared to 42 per cent in Ontario. I love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and I think this type of education is both vitally important and under attack, especially under the Harper government. But social sciences and humanities — philosophy, literature, history, political science, geography, sociology, linguistics, economics — are fields that help students understand power and understand the world they live in. They are fields that give students a chance of shaping the future.

In his 2008 book Unmaking the Public University, English professor Chris Newfield of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the attack on the social sciences and humanities — the devaluing of cultural knowledge — was a part of the assault on public universities and part of the assault on the North American middle class.

The idea of a public university open to everyone, where the cultural knowledge to shape and change society is taught and developed, is a dangerous idea for those who fear the public.

Who is subsidizing, and who is subsidized?

Newfield’s book is full of insights, many of which are highly relevant to Canadian universities and especially to York. One in particular relates to university budgets. Part of a professor’s job, especially in the natural sciences, is to seek external research funding. The grants that professors win in competitions bring prestige to their universities and make it possible to do research. Many believe that these grants help subsidize other parts of the university, but Newfield points out that the grants never cover the full costs of the research, and the university has to provide some matching funds for every grant.

Where do these matching funds come from? From the teaching budget from where most of the students are: the social sciences and the humanities. So, here again, what most people believe is the reverse of reality: it turns out that teaching in the social sciences and humanities subsidizes research in the natural sciences, not the other way around.

In the background of the York strike is the provincial funding formula, which has continued to erode the public part of university budgets. Universities in Ontario responded by following what was done in the United States: they have sought to squeeze more tuition out of students and more funds from private donors.

York’s administration has also sought to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics profile and reduce, in relative terms, its social sciences and humanities profile. The fact that the social sciences and humanities faculty and students are among the most “unruly,” the most likely to insist on collegial governance, and highly active in unions, may not be lost on the administration.
Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions.

But none of these strategies will work to the competitive advantage of York, many of whose students will either receive a public education or no education at all. This puts York in an interesting position, as it makes the public option the most strategic one for the institution to survive and thrive. Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions. There are only corporate models of total top-down control, privilege, and power at the top, and obedience and fear at the bottom.

York’s social sciences and humanities programs, which attract huge numbers of students and probably subsidize the rest of the university, will never be shut down. But an administrative vision would see these programs carefully controlled, delivered by insecure teachers with no union protections or academic freedom, and students who pay huge amounts to shut up and study like their instructors, who gratefully accept a tiny share of the budget for the chance to shut up and teach.

It doesn’t have to be this way, especially at York. We could try, instead, to be who we are, instead of trying to be something we are not.

What if York were to lead other universities in the aggressive pursuit of the public option? Embracing its progressive traditions, embracing its diverse and in many cases oppressed student body, and working on a whole new list of problems. What would it take to achieve free tuition? How could we speed up and open up the peer review process? How could we run the university on free software and free information? How could we ensure that everyone who works at the university has a good job at a living wage and the freedom to contribute creatively to the community and to say what they think? How could we have a totally seamless relationship with the non-university public, in which the university becomes a source of knowledge and not a place where knowledge is locked up to be accessed only by those who pay to be within its walls? These are the more interesting problems that we could work on at places such as York.

The alternative is to become another all-administrative university with cowed, indebted students taught by cowed, temporary faculty. York’s TAs, GAs, and contract faculty have shown the way, but the struggle for a truly public university will be a long one.

First published in Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/373/york-strikers-show-the-way-now-lets-build-a-truly-public-university

A bomb in the mail

Followers of the Killing Train will remember the city of Cali, Colombia, and its public sector union, SINTRAEMCALI. SINTRAEMCALI has a record of militancy and successful resistance to privatization, protecting not just their own jobs but the public services badly needed by people in Cali. Recently they did a building occupation, which they called off after assessing the situation.

Three days ago two unionists from SINTRAEMCALI were seriously wounded by a letter-bomb (see below). This is not the first bombing against SINTRAEMCALI workers. Privatization by bombing is a favoured tactic, it seems, in this world order…

PRESS STATEMENT: Two SINTRAEMCALI members gravely injured by letter bomb

The Events:

At approximately 5.30pm Monday the 7th of June 2004 at the Water and Sewerage Plant Located on Kr 15, Calle 59 the guards on duty at the time Carlos Gonzalez and Gustavo Tacuma found a large unidentifiable package. Carlos Gonzalez attempted to open it and it immediately exploded causing the loss of his right hand and eye and serious burns, Gustavo Tacuma incurred damage to the cornea and second degree burns.

Carlos Gonzalez lost his hand in the explosion and had to have his arm amputated up to the elbow. Gustavo Tacuma is currently in a critical condition in hospital and breathing on a respirator.

Despite being immediately informed of the explosion police arrived three hours later and in a force of more than 150 Metropolitan Police Officers and agents from the National Intelligence Services (SINJIN), Technical Investigation Services (CTI) and the Security Administration Department (DAS) who carried out a thorough search of the of the premises. We denounce the conduct of the police in this operation which, similar to many other occasions, seeks to lay blame on the workers of EMCALI for the serious injury of SINTRAEMCALI activists

This attack comes just over week after the workers of EMCALI held the Permanent Assembly inside the CAM Tower from the 26th to the 29th of May 2004 to show their opposition to the Operational and Labor Restructuring imposed by the government in favour of national and international banks. This legitimate protest action was repressed by Alvaro Uribe Velez who assumed control of the situation , taking over from local civil and political authorities and the police under the Mayor and Governor, and imposing military control. The President ordered the forced isolation of the building resulting in the injury of supporters outside and threatened the workers inside with a full assault from the Elite Anti Terrorist Command if they continued to demand negotiations regarding the future of the Company. In spite of this coup d’etat at the local level, Governor ANGELINO GARZON and Mayor APOLINAR SALCEDO and the SINTRAEMCALI Negotiators signed an agreement for a civil and democratic end to the Assembly with a commitment to a Popular Consultation regarding the proposal for Operatiional and Labour Restructuring.

We urgently demand:
A thorough investigation in to the bomb attack that the intellectual and material perpetrators may be brought to justice.

That the Colombian government provide guarantees for the safety and security of Colombian Workers

The respect of the fundamental constitutional rights to life, security, liberty of opinion, information, assembly, social protest and the right to form labour unions and as such that the Colombian Government comply with international agreements it has signed committing to respect of the above.

That the Colombian Government make a declaration before the United Nations, the Organisation of American Status, The Diplomatic Bodies seated in Colombia and the International Labour Organisation so as to guarantee the protection of the human rights of the leaders and activists of SINTRAEMCALI.

That the Colombian Government explain the reasons for the ongoing and systematic persecution of Union Leaders and activists in the Vale del Cauca.

National and International Campaign against Privatisation, Corruption and the Criminalisation of Social Protest: FORBIDDEN TO FORGET

Asociación Para la Investigación y Acción Social NOMADESC
Sindicato de Trabajadores de Las Empresas Municipales de Cali SINTRAEMCALI
Sindicato De Los Trabajadores Universitarios De Colombia SINTRAUNICOL
La Unión Sindical Obrera USO
Asociación para el Desarrollo Social Integral ECATE
Central Unitaria De Los Trabajadores CUT – VALLE DEL CAUCA
Corporación Servicios Profesionales Comunitarios SEMBRAR
Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Minería en Colombia SINTRAMINERCOL
Movimiento Estudiantil del Valle del Cauca y Nariño
Fundación Comité De Solidaridad Con Presos Políticos Seccional Valle del Cauca
Sintramunicipio Bugalagrande, Sintramunicipio Yumbo, Sintramunicipio Dagua
Sintrametal Yumbo, Organizaciones Barriales Juveniles Artísticas y Populares de Santiago de Cali

Asociación para la Investigación y Acción Social Nomadesc E-mail: Nomadesc@latinmail.com
Campaña “Prohibido Olvidar” E-mail dhprohibidolvidar@yahoo.com

USO: the punishment for winning begins

A few days ago I blogged about the end of the oil worker’s strike in Colombia, and how they won an agreement preventing the privatization at some cost to the workers. The pattern after a successful strike or demonstration in Colombia is very predictable: workers, especially union leaders, start getting picked off and assassinated by paramilitaries. That began yesterday with the murder of Fabio Burbano at his home, yesterday night, according to a communique from USO. He was a part-time worker and a union activist.

Colombia: Cali building occupation ends

A couple days ago I blogged about the heroic union SINTRAEMCALI’s attempts to stop the creeping privatization of the public utilities company in the city of Cali, Colombia. I noted that it was a high-risk maneuver, and they made a risk assessment yesterday after the National government responded with overwhelming repression and decided to call off the occupation. The assessment of the situation by Nathan Eisenstadt of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK is mixed:

The agreement is more of a short term pacifier to facilitate further negotiations with a commitment to reviewing the Government’s recent restructuring proposal and a continuing dialogue including public consultation regarding its implications. It’s not a full victory for either side and accordingly can be viewed as victory for both. On the part of the Government the CAM Tower is no longer occupied by the workers so victory could be claimed, but before the occupation occurred eviction was (obviously) not the Government’s goal. On the part of workers the issues surrounding the new proposal and its implications have been brought to the fore, negotiations opened and the people mobilized.

This is by no means the end, the threat of privatisation, increased tariffs, and removal of subsidies to impoverished sectors remains very real. What has been achieved is to show that in spite of his dogmatic stance and unremitting anti democratic tactics that the people are still ready to resist the President´s onslaught and present viable alternatives. Something that defined this battle from the last was the lack of build up, that few knew the implications of a rapidly imposed proposal with sufficient time for word to spread. Times change and effective methods one year, with one government, do not necessarily work in same way with the next. There remains much work to be done and this was the first step in a new process rather than the last in an established one…

When I hear about these struggles I wonder what it would take for movements in North America to have that kind of hard-headed strategy, that kind of sense of how to intervene in a principled and effective way, that kind of understanding of the forces at play. Circumstances in Colombia are incomparably more difficult than in North America. Repression in Colombia is in a completely different world from anything North American unionists (or any other activists) face. Why does it seem that they are able to accomplish so much more?


I prefer attributed to anonymous sources, but in a context like Colombia where hundreds of union leaders, human rights activists, journalist, lawyers and the like are killed every year for speaking out, I believe exceptions can be made.

I blogged yesterday that the 18th Brigade of the Colombian Army is directly implicated in a massacre of 13 people in Arauca. Today a communique from “social organizations who will not leave the shadows” pointed out a coincidence — that the very day of the massacre (May 20), the commander of the armed forces Martin Orlando Carreno made a visit to the military base of Pueblo Nuevo. Pueblo Nuevo is a 30 minute car ride from the site of the massacre (Pinalito and Flor Amarillo of the Tame Municipality).

Other Colombia news: SINTRAEMCALI, the city of Cali’s remarkable public utility worker’s union (here’s an interview on them) has again occupied a public building — a very high-risk, high-stakes action in a place like Colombia, demanding an end to the government’s creeping attempts to privatize the company. They are trying to put a light on things the government would rather keep hidden. See details below, thanks to the UK Colombia solidarity campaign.

More Colombia labor news: The Union Sindical Obrera, the oil worker’s union, went on strike 35 days ago to try to stop privatization of the state oil company. The government agreed not to privatize, ending the strike. The workers sacrificed a tremendous amount — 248 workers who were fired when the strike was declared illegal have the option of arbitration or voluntary retirement.


SINTRAEMCALI declares a Permanent Assembly, 1600 people peacefully occupy the Central Administration Building – The CAM Tower

Santiago de Cali 26th May, 2004

The CAM Tower, symbol of the defence of the rights of the workers of EMCALI EICE ESP has been occupied once again by SINTRAEMCALI in the face of the failure of the government of ALVARO URIBE VELEZ to fulfil its obligations under a recent agreement. The administrative functions of the company have been paralysed but the provision of basic public services will be guaranteed. The Permanent Assembly will continue until the National Government fulfils its obligations under the agreement with the workers and citizens of Cali.

Around 1600 workers of the Municipal Enterprises of Cali EMCALI EICE ESP, declared themselves to be in Permanent Assembly from 6.00 am this morning, the 26th of May, 2004. They will remain there until the nationally imposed Managing Director CARLOS ALFONSO POTES is fired for his involvement in corruption, the EMCALI workers that were dismissed have been reinstated in their positions, and the national government fulfills its agreement with the EMCALI workers and the citizens of Cali.

The Regional Attorney yesterday announced that ALFONSO POTES had been found guilty of corrupt practices and disqualified him from holding public office and continuing in his job. However, the Superintendent of Public Services EVA MARIA URIBE immediately stated that ALFONSO POTES would carry on in his position because the case did not proceed to prosecution [translators note: i.e. that it was not a judicial process but an administrative investigation] . This confirms once again that the Colombian government places itself above State Organs of control. Despite the Regional Attorney’s call for his dismissal the Superintendent of Public Services decided to allow him to carry on in his position.

The National and International Community have been witness to the range of attempts by ALVARO URIBE VELEZ and the Superintendent of Public Services EVA MARIA URIBE, to privatize the company and also the effort that workers have made so that EMCALI could remain as a Commercial and Industrial State Enterprise: On the 4th of May, 2004 the workers ceded many benefits acquired over 70 years of struggle by renegotiating the Collective Agreement with the Ministry of Labour [in order to save the company].

Despite this, the response of the government has been repression against the workers, a restructuring of the company that was not discussed in the recent agreements, giving precedence to the National and International Banks to the detriment of the ‘patrimonio publico’ [translators note: common good/public property] and the rights of the workers and consumers.


Since Carlos Alfonso Potes took control of EMCALI he has consistently denied any accusations that he was ineligible to take up the position due to his involvement in a previous public service provider, and has denied any involvement with the Public Service Company of Tulua [ a private supplie of public utilities]. However, that company has certified that Potes is a shareholder. Furthermore, it was proved that he was involved in the appointment of the manager ISABEL CRISTINA VIGOYA, who was ultimately dismissed for having forged her qualification certificates, and for carrying out activities aimed at destabilizing EMCALI.

SINTRAEMCALI has consistently argued that the current Managing Director is incompetent and corrupt, and has called for a commission of inquiry – made up of the Regional Attorney, the State Prosecutor, the Controller General and the Citizens Watchdog to investigate – into all the administrative acts that have caused damage to the ‘patrimonio nacional’ of EMCALI EICE ESP as well as causing harm to the consumer community.

For the above reasons the trade union of the Public Municipal Enterprises of Cali – SINTRAEMCALI, the Association for Research and Social Action NOMADESC and other members of the Campaign PROHIBIDO OLVIDAR (Forbidden to Forget) call on the national and international community to support the demands that:

a.. The Manager of EMCALI EICE ESP CARLOS ALFONSO POTES is immediately dismissed from his position in line with the Regional Attorney’s verdict.
b.. That the government complies with the agreement signed by Alvaro Uribe Velez and the workers and citizens of Cali
c.. That the government respects constitutional and legal rights such as the right to life, security, freedom of opinion, information, mobilization, trade unionism and protest, and conforms to the International Pacts and Agreements that the Colombian government has signed up to.
d.. That the Colombian government guarantees the necessary conditions to protect the physical and psychological integrity of the workers.
e.. Calls on the United Nations, the Organisation of American States, the Diplomatic Corps based in Colombia, and the International Labour Organisation to guarantee the human rights of the leaders and activists of SINTRAEMCALI.

Sindicato de Trabajadores de Las Empresas Municipales de Cali – SINTRAEMCALI
Sindicato De Los Trabajadores Universitarios De Colombia – SINTRAUNICOL
La Unión Sindical Obrera- USO
Asociación para el Desarrollo Social Integral – ECATE
Central Unitaria De Los Trabajadores CUT – VALLE DEL CAUCA

For more info contact Colombia Solidarity Campaign at colombia_sc@hotmail.com and to this e-mail address ahigginbottom@blueyonder.co.uk Tel 07743743041