I am writing this in response to an “open letter” circulating in the comments of posts that express solidarity with CUPE 3903. The link to the letter is often left as an anonymous “but also, this…” reply to statements from those standing with us in this fight. First, I want to acknowledge the confusion, frustration, and concern that stand at the heart of this student’s letter – we understand the disruption that striking causes our students, we are mourning the hours of education lost to picketing, we are anxious, nervous, and are always mindful of what obstacles stand before you as an undergraduate student. This an uncomfortable situation, that is difficult for students for navigate – we know this.
The first point I want to clarify is based on how this letter is addressed - “to striking Faculty”. Those who have full-faculty positions at York are not on strike. In addressing the letter this way, I cannot help but wonder if you understand the basis of the strike at all. I am not saying this to cut you down, but perhaps to note, right here in the beginning of this response, that we are always looking for better ways to communicate with students about why this is an important action, and perhaps we could have done more to get this information to you. Nonetheless, I feel as if your sentiments are, from the very start, directed in the wrong direction.
CUPE 3903 represents contract faculty, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and (though not on strike at this moment), part-time librarians and archivists. While you do note this eventually, it feels lost on you that many of us are in fact students too. I myself, a teaching assistant, am a student here at York. I note this, because your first paragraph resonates with mine and my peers’ experience as well – but after five, six, seven plus years as students, we do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. I imagine, for you, the light you speak of is the “completion” of your degree – in that case I will get there too, likely next year. But when I imply that graduate students are less likely than you to see a “light at the end”, it is because we also see the erosion of quality university education. In a “selfish” sense, these are things that affect our future employability – the loss of tenure-track jobs and increased precarity – the very things we are are fighting against alongside our Unit 2 colleagues. But these are also concerns about education in general – the neoliberalization of the university, increased student fees, a focus on profit, growing class sizes, amongst many others.
Your letter suggests the “light at the end of the long tunnel” is, for you, finishing university, and leaving it behind. To this I wonder how much the wellbeing of future university students crosses your mind? The premise of a strike is to disrupt the status quo to demand better for the future – to imply that we forget about students in this scenario is absurd. I am a student. I am always thinking about the wellbeing of my peers (who are students themselves), the students that I teach, as well as thinking about the students I hope to teach in the future.
My teachers went on strike when I was in high school in Alberta in 2002. I recovered. The 2015 strike at York affected me greatly as I was still doing coursework. I recovered. My students recovered. When my Unit 2 colleagues recount the strikes previous to my time here at York, their students, well, recovered too. Though strikes affect students to different degrees, you will likely recover. It is because of this, that we feel it is worthwhile to fight for something greater than keeping the day-to-day function of the University undisturbed.
When I read your letter, I feel your frustration, and I get it – but it feels as if your fear and uncertainty around your own completion leads you to disregard the positions of the students who are not yet in university, or who are maybe in first, second, and third year – those who are facing increasing tuition fees, decreasing face-to-face interaction with educators, at institutions increasingly treating education as a commodity. You seem to have forgotten about them, we have not.
In regard to your points about the cost of education, I remind you again, that we are students too – we know these costs, we pay these costs. We pay them for our graduate education and most of us (across each of our units) are still paying for debt from previous degrees.
I feel pained that you seem to think that this is something that is passively happening to you, when all of your concerns stem from the very institutional conditions we are fighting. Why is it that you feel “we [read: students] cannot do anything to stop a strike from happening”? Why is it that you chose to write an open letter to us, and not the university demanding they take negotiation more seriously?. Why is your frustration with the amount of debt you face from your education levied at us, fellow students, and not at the University or the Province? It is here I want to invert a demand that you made on me (one, that I feel, I have already fulfilled). You ask me to remember that while I am on the picket line my "students sit at home unsettled, uneased and anxious about their futures” (sic). I am here standing on the picket line unsettled, uneasy and anxious about students’ futures, and ask you to be here too. Either physically, like many students were during the OPSEU strike, like York Federation of Students are today, like Students for CUPE 3903 are doing, or just in solidarity from home. When I went on strike in 2015 my redline was the reversal of York’s tuition increases for international graduate students – I am not an international student. I am sorry that you (in your own words) are sitting at home unsettled, but we would rather be in the classrooms too – instead we are standing in front of cars, death threats being thrown at us, because we want better for students. You have cited your fear that your last year “may become more chaotic and ‘scrambled’ then [the] last three” and I am empathetic towards this, but does your empathy extend to us, students who are demanding the University pay attention to education, inclusivity, and dignity? Does it extend to future university students? Or does your empathy extend only to fourth year undergraduate students with jobs lined up for April (there are quite few of those)?
Our working conditions are your learning conditions, and I have not stopped thinking about my students once in this scenario, and I know the educators at UCU, in West Virginia, in CUPE 2424, and all the others considering action are thinking about theirs too.
A stressed out, worried, and NOT-DEFEATED defeated University Student