AND PAOLA LORIGGIO
Premier Dalton McGuinty is resisting pressure to recall the Legislature to end the 11-week-old York University strike because the government believes such a move would be challenged in court.
With the provincial Liberals being battered in the court of public opinion instead, McGuinty yesterday appointed Reg Pearson, Ontario’s chief mediator, “to bang a few heads together” and resolve the dispute.
But if Pearson fails to get both sides back to the bargaining table, the job action risks dragging on indefinitely because the government has few realistic weapons left to it.
While the Ontario government intervened in college strikes in 1984 and 1989, it has never done so for a university labour dispute.
Senior government officials confide such action is unlikely in this case because a precedent-setting 2007 Supreme Court ruling in a dispute between British Columbia and unionized health services support workers limits government’s ability to impose back-to-work legislation.
“The imposition of compulsory arbitration in cases where the parties do not reach agreement is generally contrary to the principle of voluntary collective bargaining and is only admissible (in) cases of essential services, administration of the State, clear deadlock, and national crisis,” the high court ruled.
McGuinty’s government has been criticized for inaction on the strike by 3,340 teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants that began Nov. 6. Last April, McGuinty ended a Toronto Transit Commission walkout in less than two days by convening a rare Sunday session of the Legislature to table back-to-work legislation.
But Pearson is known for his work on TTC strikes in 1999, 2005 and 2008 and the Liberals hope he can replicate his past magic.
“We’ll give this one more shot,” McGuinty told reporters. “We think it’s the fastest way to bring this home, which is to send in a mediator to bang a few heads together and ideally lead to a speedy resolution,” he said, refusing to set a deadline for the non-binding mediation.
His comments came the morning after 63 per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 3903 rejected the university’s latest contract offer of 9.25 per cent wage hikes over three years, improved benefits, and job security, in a forced vote Tuesday.
Veteran mediator and labour lawyer Mort Mitchnick said at least with mediation, both sides would have a dialogue and it should only take Pearson a few days to determine if a resolution is possible.
“(He) is a well-known and respected mediator, and given the fact that the university indicated it really did show the union its best offer in the vote that was turned down, the university has no reason to go back to the table unless summoned by a mediator.”
Echoing the government’s concern, he added CUPE certainly would challenge back-to-work legislation. “I’m not saying it would succeed, but at least there would be an attempt to challenge it,” he said.
CUPE’s 3903 spokesperson Tyler Shipley praised McGuinty’s move.
“Quite frankly, we think it’s great,” he said, emphasizing the union hopes it’s enough pressure to get the university to take collective bargaining seriously. “Our members are exhausted of this strike, tired of walking the picket lines … they are anxious to see an end to it.”
York University president Mamdouh Shoukri welcomed the mediator. “This strike has gone on for far too long and has been highly destructive for our 50,000 students. We look forward to Reg Pearson’s involvement in the hope that it will lead to a speedy resolution.”
York spokesperson Alex Bilyk said the university hasn’t heard when the two sides are to meet with the mediator. The school year will already be extended into May, and “that summer term is really being threatened” without a settlement.
York Federation of Students president Hamid Osman said, “it’s unfortunate the strike isn’t over, but we want to have both parties come to a negotiated settlement as soon as possible.”
Osman said many of the 50,000 students affected are calling him to complain about financial woes caused by the strike, including the loss of on-campus jobs and missed internships.
Dagmar Kanzler, the mother of a second-year student who last week launched a Facebook group for frustrated parents of York students that now has 70 members, said she’s requested a meeting with the premier to “personally make the case” for back-to-work legislation. As yet, no one has responded to her letter or phone call.
Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman (Thornhill), whose party wants the Legislature recalled immediately, scoffed at McGuinty’s suggestions of urgency.
“I don’t think heads are being banged together,” said Shurman, who has been imploring the Liberals to intervene since last fall.
“To say that he wants a `speedy’ settlement to this dispute at York at the 11-week mark is disingenuous to say the least,” he said.
But Paul Ferreira, chief of staff to NDP Leader Howard Hampton, said a negotiated settlement – with Pearson’s help – is the most desirable outcome. “A new mediator has been named and he will sit down with both sides and the hope is this thing will be resolved through the negotiating process,” he said, adding back-to-work legislation is just hypothetical at this point.