Now that the “Winter Semester” has finally ended, the widespread animosity at York University seems to have dissipated…a bit. Yes, having our school year extended into the summer months has been painful—especially for the professors who are still bitterly reading our bitterly-written assignments—and we must all lament the fact that finger-pointing became the new hand-shaking on campus. Still, now that we’re free, perhaps this article I co-wrote in March will be well-received. In it, Andrew and I re-examine the 11-week strike of 2001 and interview those affected in order to benefit from their hindsight. Although our own strike lasted 2 weeks longer than did theirs, let’s try to imagine what we will feel in the not-so-distant future.
Back to the Future||Your Thoughts on the York University Strike Seven Years from now?
Siobheann Leahy still remembers feeling guilty as she stepped off of the bus and looked toward the picket lines. Head down, she walked in the direction of the Seymour Schulich Building, an oasis of activity on a largely dormant campus. During the 2001 strike, Leahy was in her first year of a Bachelor of Business Administration, one of the few programs that continued even as the strike dragged on.
“I was in a conflicted position,” recalls Leahy, “It was an awful feeling, crossing people who were standing up for their rights.”
Jessica Shumake might have been one of those people. During the 2001 strike, Shumake was a first year PhD student in the department of Philosophy, a teaching assistant, and a fervent member of CUPE 3903. Nearly seven years after the fact, she still thinks about the eleven-week strike.
“That strike marked the first moment I began to think of myself as an activist. Graduate school can feel really individualistic and competitive,” said Shumake, “It was powerful to learn that I could put my energy into collective action with the same intensity that I could my academic research and professional goals.”
Nevertheless, the exuberance of the critical mass, as it were, did not come without a price.
Upon resumption of classes, Shumake felt that she was labeled one of the “political students”. Some of the faculty in her graduate program were vocal about their opposition to the strike.
“Those of us dubbed ‘the political students’ had a harder time actually reaching our academic goals. Many in my cohort, for example, never graduated with a PhD,” she said, “The lesson I learned is that being a visible part of collective action sometimes has a very high cost.”
Evidently, the high cost of the strike was not exclusive to the strikers.
Rena Adams*, then a fourth year mature student in the department of Sociology, became increasingly frustrated during the strike.
“I felt angry at being a pawn in the hands of the administration and the union. I felt that no-one cared about the students.”
Although Adams originally sympathized with the CUPE 3903, she lost her patience as the days inched by. The experience—one that Adams deemed a destructive power struggle—left a “very bitter taste of York University in [her] memory.” She still feels that this institution “readily neglects and sacrifices the student’s interests.”
On the other hand, some alumni struggle to even remember details from 2001.
Roger Jeffries spent the eleven weeks largely unfazed. Describing the dispute as an ongoing annoyance at worst, the then English and Philosophy student admits that he was never really upset. Similarly, when classes resumed, he didn’t have a problem getting back into the curriculum.
“I felt like they went a little easier on us. Some people had kept up but obviously not everyone did,” said Jeffries, “It seemed like the faculty wanted to make sure no one was at a disadvantage, even if they chose not to study during the strike.”
He even saw an improvement in his grades. The strike now seems like “ages ago” to Jeffries, whose advice to the students of 2009 is: “Relax. It’s going to be a pain but ultimately you’ll be fine.”
Similarly, Helen Narbel*—then a second year Humanities major—doesn’t think the strike was a huge issue for her either. She explains that she felt quite isolated from the York community during the dispute; however, Narbel also believes that the climate has changed for the students of today. Due to the proliferation of social networking tools like Facebook, students have more venues to connect off-campus. It is easier to organize, to express anger and to influence each other’s views.
Now a York University GA, Narbel admits, “I understand more about what the undergrads of 2009 are going through than I understood about my own peers when I was an undergrad.”
Another alumnus-turned-educator, Angelo Kontos, is no stranger to strikes.
Kontos, who had been an undergrad during the York strike of 1997, found himself in the same position in 2001. The second time around, Kontos was completing the Consecutive Education Program and fulfilling the requirements of his practicum. Although his off-campus teaching kept him active, Kontos still felt the stress of uncertainty and the lack of communication between factions.
“We have to take things issue by issue, not just lose ourselves in generalizations,” said Kontos, “Many of the people involved are jaded one way or the other. We must strive to find common points.”
The social science teacher offers today’s York students the same advice that he gives his own: “There are life-or-death issues and then there are issues in life. If the situation isn’t in the first category, don’t blow it out of proportion.”
Everything in perspective, many of these alumni still have generally positive memories of York University.
Leahy, who ended up transferring to UofT, still feels that York is an innovative and dynamic community. Now that his aggravation has worn off, Kontos says he remembers York as a great place, alive with political thinking. Shumake, who is now taking her second crack at a PhD (this time in English), still maintains, “I would go to York and do it all again, if I had the choice. It was both strange and wonderful—mostly, it was formative of the person I am today.”
Still, as nearly all the alumni admit, there is always a point past which morale goes down and even the most sympathetic lose their patience. Indeed, as tensions continue to bubble in the veins of many Canadian campuses, it is likely that history will once again repeat itself. Already there are rumours of an Ontario-wide CUPE strike in 2010, potentially involving local 3903, thus it seems likely that other students will soon turn to us and ask how we got through it all.
But where will we be then?
Perhaps the anger and the frustration will have subsided into a tasteless recollection of drunken debauchery. Maybe the strike will have meaningfully altered our futures, having been an exemplar of activism for some and a point of resentment for others. Maybe we won’t remember much at all. Whatever the case, one thing seems certain about the future of this record-breaking strike: one day – perhaps sooner than later – we will be asked to go back over our manuscript of memories and read between the picket lines.
Andrew Menchynski, News Editor
& Fabiola Carletti, Features Editor
*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees
The above article was originally printed in the March 2009 issue of MacMedia magazine.
It was co-authored by Andrew Menchynski, News Editor.