Tens of thousands of York University students had their hopes of a quick return to class dashed this past weekend as back-to-work legislation that would’ve ended a months-long strike by teaching assistants and contract staff was held up by the New Democrats.
The NDP voted against the bill, supported by both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives, in a rare Sunday session at Queen’s Park. Leader Howard Hampton argued, in rejecting the proposal, that striking workers do half of the teaching at York University but only receive a fraction of the salary.
“I think adequate funding for Ontario’s universities is something we should all be interested in,” he noted, adding York should be shouldering the blame for the extended stoppage more so than his party.
“The university was never interested in bargaining,” Hampton insisted. “They wanted to lock the students out there in the street and they were hoping the government would come and sweep all this under the carpet, which we think may be illegal.”
The Liberal government admitted that unless the NDP changes its mind students likely won’t be back to the books this week. Politicians headed back to the legislature Monday to continue the debate.
“I think it’s important that there be a debate on this legislation itself, on the government’s underfunding of post-secondary education, and on the need to address that if we’re going to avoid this in the months down the road at every community college and university in Ontario,” noted New Democrat Peter Kormos.
About 5,000 students in particular programs were able to return to class Monday because of a special agreement made in the past week covering certain programs including the Schulich School of Business. Those classes are being taught by instructors not taking part in the labour action.
“It’s quite different,” noted student Daniel Fahim, one of those let back after 11 weeks away. “It’s weird to come back to class.”
Others felt conflicted about the return.
“It’s kind of a mixture of feelings,” student Christine Kang explained. “Yes I know for sure I’ll actually get my term but it’s really frustrating because we’ve been off for two and a half months. You probably forget everything.”
Premier Dalton McGuinty sent in his top mediator to assist in bringing both sides together last week, but no agreement was reached.
Thursday is the earliest a back-to-work bill could be passed, so at this point the school likely won’t reopen until February at the earliest.
Some picketers say they are disappointed with the government.
“What’s the point of having unions if they will make it illegal for them to go on strike?,” asked CUPE 3903 picket captain Xavier Scott. “Unions are a cornerstone of the democracy. Whether or not you support this particular strike, or whether or not you have problems with unions, I think everybody has to admit at the end of the day that (striking) is an integral part of the democratic process and workers’ rights across the country.”
The Opposition claims the Liberals were slow to react.
“Your mismanagement took them from being pawns of the university and the union to being pawns between the Liberals and the NDP,” charged Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman at Queen’s Park. “And for that shameful political posturing the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities should resign.”
And in a statement, P.C. Leader John Tory argued, “Students are suffering at the hand of the Premier, yet all he has to offer them is the promise of additional OSAP funding, which really means more debt. That’s just not good enough. Students just don’t deserve to have more debt and more interest charges because Dalton McGuinty chose to ignore their plight for weeks.
“Our Party has been calling for action on this since November. Now that students are facing an extra month of rent, less time for summer jobs and a change in travel plans to get home, this government must find a way to finally offer up some real assistance.”
MPP John Milloy, who’s in charge of the Colleges and Universities portfolio, responded, “When it became apparent there was a deadlock we’ve taken the action of recalling the legislature. And we call on all members of the legislature, particularly those in the New Democratic Party, to not hold up the education of 50,000-plus students.”
But while there’s no action in many of the university’s classes, there may be some hope for affected students, as a Toronto law firm has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the pupils, claiming they’re entitled to a refund for their tuition costs and other fees.
“We’re asking for $250 million in general damages,” explains lawyer Henry Juroviesky. “They have a diminution in the value of their educational degrees, they have a diminution in value and quality of their education, they also have indirect damages.”
To find out how to stake your claim, click here.
York officials would only say they’ll review the suit and defend it on merit.
But Juroviesky says hundreds of students have already signed on, with many more to join, though some would prefer to simply save the cash and head back to school.
“I’d rather have my credits than the money,” admitted student Stephanie Gyles. “I don’t really think I need the money I just want the credits.”
The strike, which began November 6, affects 50,000 students at the university. The school says there are no plans to refund tuition. Students will have no reading week and a shorter exam period in order for the school year to end on June 2.