By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
There is one question that hangs over the messy, long-running labour dispute at York University: Where is the adult supervision?
The 12-week strike by contract faculty and teaching assistants has unfolded like a pyjama party in the basement when the parents have gone out and the babysitter has fallen asleep. The kids really do intend to turn off the television and head to bed but they don't get around to it.
Similarly, York and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 really, really meant to end the strike and allow 50,000 students to get back to class. It's just that stuff got in the way. The union says York didn't want to bargain and York says the union was slow to respond to its proposals.
The details at the core of the dispute are as important as they are any time workers bargain with employers. But not so important that the two sides couldn't be bothered to face each other across a bargaining table more than 11 times since the strike began Nov. 6. They knew that the dispute was bogged down. The mediator, who suspended talks Nov. 29, knew it too.
Given this, it's a little arch for Premier Dalton McGuinty to suddenly pronounce, as he did Saturday, that the talks were deadlocked and that he needed to recall the legislature Sunday to order the strikers back to work because the students were suffering.
Had he not been reading those Facebook sites in which students complained that they were being held hostage by the intractable tango of York and the union? Or did he appoint another mediator last week because his government was being stung by bad publicity?
Fortunately for Mr. McGuinty, the New Democratic Party is acting true to form by resisting quick passage of back-to-work legislation. Its position was entirely predictable since four of its caucus members are vying to replace outgoing Leader Howard Hampton and none of them wants to go to the leadership convention with anything less than solid unionist credentials.
It's a gift for the Liberals because they say the NDP is keeping students from their classes. It's true, of course, but it's not the whole story. Mr. McGuinty could have used his clout weeks ago to intervene in a non-partisan way to push for a solution. Instead, what we got from the government from the time talks broke down was cant about a process that had to be left to unfold.
There is a better way. Or, at least, there once was.
Back in 1975, an apprehensive Progressive Conservative government gave teachers the right to strike but established the Education Relations Commission to keep a mind on things. The ERC was responsible for providing mediators, "fact finders" and arbitrators in teacher-school board negotiations, supervising strike votes and, crucially, recommending to the government when school strikes or lockouts put students' education in jeopardy.
After a rocky start - the ERC allowed a nine-week walkout by Toronto high-school teachers - it ushered in an era of more temperate labour relations. It was a delicate matter to balance the right to strike with the rights of students but the commission mostly got it right until Mike Harris gutted it in 1997. It invoked its jeopardy powers just nine times.
It's time to re-invent the ERC and give it broader powers. Universities would argue a similar body for postsecondary labour relations would compromise their autonomy, but that bridge was passed when they consented to accountability agreements in return for $6.2-billion in new funding. Unions would complain their rights would be curtailed, but high-school unions weren't diminished by the ERC. Students, on the other hand, would simply be happy that someone was looking out for them.