What Ontario college students can learn from last year’s strike at York University

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“Why me? Why is this happening?”

Leena Salem is a third-year student enrolled in Sheridan at York’s joint graphic design program. During last year’s strike at York University, which was the longest ever strike at an English-language university in Canada, she only had two classes each week at Sheridan College. The three-month strike disrupted the progression of her program and extended the time she has to remain in school.

If the instructors from Sheridan as well as those from Ontario’s 23 other colleges go on strike, it will be like déjà vu for Salem.

Full-time college faculty in Ontario voted 57% in favour of a strike mandate and 43% against on Jan. 13. After a week of negotiations between the colleges and the faculty union, and a short break to allow each side to reconsider its position, talks resumed on Jan. 26.

The main concerns of faculty, as outlined in a release from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) on Jan. 23, include salary and benefits, workload and full-time versus part-time staffing. If faculty ultimately decides to strike, it probably wouldn’t happen until mid-February.

As for the more than 500,000 students across Ontario who will be affected by the potential strike, Salem says, “Everyone’s really pissed off. They’re all saying ‘Why me? Why is this happening?'”

Losing their edge

The school year was extended after the strike at York last year, interrupting students’ plans for beginning their careers or pursuing higher education.

“Some chose to take courses at different times,” says Alex Bilyk, York’s director of media relations. But for those who continued with their programs and hoped to find work, “the strike meant a late start.”

York’s entire student population lost its edge to students from other schools. As the extended year dragged on, eager job seekers and graduate school hopefuls were held back. But the immediate affect on students’ personal finances was most noticeable during the strike. “Students working on campus also had no work at the time – the campus was very quiet,” says Bilyk.

Alexandra Posadzski, editor-in-chief of York’s student-run newspaper, Excalibur, says, “A lot of people were worried about personal finances because they wouldn’t have the summer to make up for their tuition.”

Although Posadzski wasn’t planning to graduate last year, she says “it was [also] really difficult to get  into grad school because no one’s transcript was released.”

Stay productive

A simple lesson Ontario college students can take from their counterparts at York in the event of an instructor’s strike next month is to stay productive. Posadadzki says, during the strike, “no one did anything productive. Most people did not do any of their reading or school work.”

Aside from contacting local MPs or joining instructors on the picket line, individual students can do very little to speed up negotiations and end the strike. But with some personal  industry and initiative, the free time students have on their hands during a strike can actually be quite productive.

Students who work part-time should try to log more hours at their jobs. Salem says she counted herself lucky because she was able to work extra hours the strike at York. “My boss was very lenient.”

Networking, job shadowing and building your portfolio are also great ways to make the most of down time during a strike.

York students, what did you do during the strike?

And fellow college students, what will you all be doing in the event of a strike?

I know what I’ll be doing – writing more for TalentEgg and venting about the strike in the comments boxes!

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About the author

David Cadiente is a recent University of Toronto at Scarborough Campus grad and attended Centennial College's Book and Magazine Publishing program. David loves music, reading, shuffling a deck of cards, and playing guitar.