It almost felt like a regular academic day at York University, with multiple rallies occurring at suburban Toronto campus. However, instead of the usual Israeli/Palestinian rallies, students were rallying against or for a strike by CUPE 2903, which has kept 50,000 students out of classes for the better part of two weeks.
In the morning, about 200 York undergraduate students held a rally calling for government-imposed binding arbitration to end the strike and get them back in their classes.
The rally, organized by a student group that calls itself YorkNotHostage.com, was designed to give students the opportunity to make their voices heard.
“We don’t really have a say,” says Catherine Divaris, a fifth-year kinesiology student who helped organize the rally. “We are not at the table.”
Divaris, like many students, is concerned about what the consequences of a long strike may have on her future.
“I’ve applied to law schools already. I’m in my final year. I have to work in the summer to make money to be able to afford my future education,” she says. “It’s not fair for a union of 3,200 members and an administration of 10 or 11 people to decide the fate of 50,000 students.”
Students were encouraged to write their stories on a large banner placed on a wall. Many students expressed apprehension about finding summer jobs if the strike results in classes being pushed back into May.
The students have succeeded in garnering the attention of at least one provincial politician. Peter Shurman, Progressive Conservative MPP for Thornhill who is calling on the provincial Liberal government to pass back-to-work legislation, spoke to the students.
“My office was besieged telephone calls and emails as this strike has unfolded,” said Shurman. “People have very long memories: they remember there was a 11-week strike seven years ago and they don’t want to see a repeat.”
Shurman presented the students concerns to the Ontario legislative assembly. However, his call for government action is only his individual position and does not reflect the position of the official opposition.
The union was dismissive of the rally, pointing out that a crowd of 200 is minuscule compared to the thousands of York students represented by the students’ union.
“They been claiming they represent the 50,000 undergrad population here, looking around, there are less than 100 people here,” Nishent Upadhyay of CUPE 3903 said. “I don’t think this is a fair representation of the undergraduate population. The YFS is still supporting us.”
Many students at the rally took issue with the stand of the YFS and noted that the student population itself was not given a direct say in the position.
“The YFS is supposed to represent undergraduate students, that’s what they are elected for,” said Harrison Baland. “Instead they go and side with the people who are screwing us over.”
It seems the only thing the grassroots YorkNotHostage.com and the YFS executive can agree on is they both want the strike to end quickly. YorkNotHostage.com wants arbitration, whereas the YFS wants the university to meet union demands.
Following the YorkNotHostage.com rally, there was a noon rally organized by the Ryerson Students’ Union and University of Toronto Students’ Union to show solidarity with CUPE 3903 and the York Federation of Students.
The RSU and UTSU provided buses from their campus to bring supporters to York. A crowd of about 250 students, picketers, and union activists made speeches and chants to boost the morale of the striking CUPE local. They carried signs provided by the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario saying “Students & Workers UNITED.”
There are presently no talks scheduled between the two sides and no end in side to the 11-day-old strike.