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April 11, 2018: Striking York University contract professors and teaching assistants walk the line and slow down traffic entering the university in the sixth week of their strike.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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This is the sixth week of a strike at Toronto’s York University that has seen 3,000 instructors walk the picket line and affected the education of 50,000 undergraduates. York made a decision to continue as many courses as possible, but classes that are led by a contract instructor have been suspended. More than half of all courses are estimated to be on hold as a result. For graduating students in particular, missing even one credit could be the difference between being able to take up a permanent job this summer or having to make up for lost time in the summer or online.

On Thursday, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Mitzie Hunter told the two sides to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table and “put the needs of the students first, and their learning.” CUPE 3903 — the Canadian Union of Public Employees local that represents the striking workers — has blamed the university for not returning to talks. But the university has said it believes negotiations are at an impasse, and only binding arbitration will end the dispute.

The Ontario government has appointed arbitrator William Kaplan to investigate the York dispute and help facilitate a resolution, the province announced Friday. Mr. Kaplan is to report back to Labour Minister Kevin Flynn and advise him on next steps.

Wasn’t York on strike not too long ago?

Yes, the same York union was on strike in March 2015, primarily over a demand to freeze or roll back tuition increases for domestic and international graduate students. Classes were suspended for about a month. One of the key gains for the union in 2015 is now in question: the creation of more pathways for contract workers to win tenure-track positions.

  • Sept. 25, 1978: Striking members of the York University Staff Association walk the picket line. The strike of secretarial workers and library technicians lasted for 17 days.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

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How frequently has York been on strike in the past?

Including the current dispute, York has had five strikes over the last two decades, with both CUPE 3903 and its faculty union walking out over the years.

In 1997, professors struck for seven weeks over pension reforms and pay equity. When they returned to a term that was extended into the summer, they were led by bagpipers and wore T-shirts reading ‘The Struggle Continues.’ Four years later, teaching assistants and contract instructors held an 11-week strike. That dispute saw picketers singing Christmas carols in front of the president’s home and building temporary winter shacks on the picket line.

But the longest strike in York’s history came in the fall and winter of 2008-2009, when classes shut down for almost three months. The Dalton McGuinty government legislated instructors back to work, and CUPE complained to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency. The ILO advised the government that setting up a body to help bring peace to divisive conflicts would be better for the province’s economy than back-to-work legislation. Meanwhile, students wrote their exams in June.

Why does this keep happening?

A key question in the current dispute is whether a lack of trust between the two sides is making negotiations particularly difficult in this round. In 2016, York changed how it funds master’s students. Students in the early stages of graduate studies should be focused on studying, not working, interim vice-president, academic and provost Lisa Philipps, has said in a prior interview. MA students no longer have to work to receive fellowships. But the change took 700 students out of the union. CUPE 3903 has filed an unfair labour practices complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board; it will not be settled before the strike ends.

Another long-standing question is whether York’s reliance on contract instructors has created a union local that is highly motivated to win job security for its members. According to a 2014 study, the number of courses taught by sessional instructors rose by 135 per cent between 2003 and 2013, while the number of tenure-stream appointments went up 20 per cent, a faster rate of increase than at other Ontario universities examined in the study. Central to several strikes, including the current one, are disagreements between the university and the union over whether academic excellence is at odds with contract work.

What else are the two sides at odds about?

CUPE 3903 would like to see a union-controlled fund for survivors of sexual violence, dedicated space for breastfeeding parents on campus, tracking of equity measures, and some increases to health and dental benefits.

Do they agree on wages?

No. York has offered just over 2 per cent annually for the next three years, and has said its offer is “sector-leading.” CUPE 3903 is asking for 3.5 per cent a year.

If the strike continues, will students lose the semester?

Each student’s situation is different. Students who have been evaluated on 70 per cent of their coursework can apply to have a final grade submitted based on their marks so far. Under limited circumstances, instructors are also free to change the weighting of grades to reach that 70-per-cent threshold. Finally, York’s Senate Executive Committee said on Thursday that it is considering allowing students who have at least a Cand have completed half the assignments in a course to receive a credit without a grade.

Will the province legislate the instructors back to work?

Ms. Hunter has repeatedly said a deal must be reached at the table. When the province stepped in to legislate Ontario’s college workers back to the classroom last November, it was to save 300,000 students, not 50,000.

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