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Osgoode and the Picket Line: What does the strike mean for law students?

20180305_121433-2Written by the Osgoode Strike Support Committee

As of March 5, our campus is on strike. Members of CUPE 3903 voted overwhelmingly to reject the offer presented at the end of last week, and regrettably, York declined the union’s offer to continue bargaining over the weekend. While all indications are that the university administration is attempting to maintain academic activities, the reality is that all of York, including Osgoode, will be behind a picket line for the duration of the strike.

 

Historically, the labour movement has treated picket lines as sacred. Crossing the picket line permits the employer to maintain business as usual, and undermines the union’s efforts to improve its bargaining position by disrupting day-to-day operations. Refusing to cross the line is a decision which expresses solidarity with workers, and may even increase the likelihood of a short, decisive strike rather than a prolonged one.

 

CUPE has good reasons for putting up this picket line. Despite having worked since August without a collective agreement, and having made many concessions from their original positions, the union remains stonewalled by the university on a number of critical issues. The university has refused to even meet halfway on the union’s demands for childcare facilities on the Glendon and new Markham campuses, and has rejected a demand that it contribute to a support fund for survivors of sexual violence.

 

Contract faculty at York are struggling with much of the same precarity as Ontario’s college faculty, who made significant gains in job security after a strike last fall. Many contract faculty piece together their livelihoods from teaching contracts at multiple universities, and even experienced instructors can earn far less than the provincial average income. Despite these circumstances, York has demanded severe concessions, and is attempting to cut the number of contract positions converted to secure tenure-track positions from eight down to just two per year. It is no surprise that contract faculty voted 4:1 to reject the university’s offer.

 

For CUPE’s Unit 3 members, the issues are existential. In 2015, there were about 670 Graduate Assistants employed by York doing work which supported research and scholarship done by faculty. However, in 2016, York unilaterally abolished automatic appointments received by incoming Master’s students, replacing their salaries with non-employment “fellowship” funding. This effectively ended large-scale hiring into Unit 3, and today, there are fewer than fifty members. The university’s imposition of the fellowship model is only really explicable as an attempt to weaken the union, and CUPE’s membership remains rightly upset. Among the key demands of the teaching assistants organized under Unit 1 is that the university be prevented from repeating this strategy; to date, they have been frustrated in these efforts.

 

While these reasons alone have made many law students supportive of the union’s position, we should also acknowledge the more direct relationship between CUPE and Osgoode. Unit 1 includes many Osgoode graduate students who provide important resources to first-year law students. Like the teaching assistants elsewhere on York campus, Osgoode’s graduate students need our support in order to reach a fair agreement which protects their rights as workers. Moreover, those of us who are interested in future studies at the graduate level stand to directly benefit from an improved collective agreement.

 

Law students should take note of the fact that our profession is not without its own labour issues. Notably, we are excluded from the hours of work provisions of the Employment Standards Act. This enables firms to demand astronomical hours from young lawyers, who generally lack the bargaining power to advocate for any semblance of work-life balance. This is particularly the case for women, people of colour, and other marginalized people entering the legal profession, who are often on their own even in large firms. When thinking about CUPE’s efforts to improve the rights and conditions of its members, we should remember that one person’s labour issues today will be another person’s tomorrow and might be ours once we pass the bar.

 

History shows that solidarity is critical to addressing these concerns. In 2016, staff lawyers for Legal Aid Ontario, who are predominantly women and people of colour, formed a union to organize against serious inequities in pay and treatment by their employer. At every stage, they were supported by the broader labour movement.

 

The Osgoode Strike Support Committee has formed to give our support to CUPE 3903 during this strike. We will be organizing among Osgoode students, working with administration on accommodation and remediation for students who choose not to cross the picket line, and walking the picket lines with our friends and allies in the union. To join us or to learn more, reach out to us at lawunion@osgoode.yorku.ca.