Photo by David Lao

Three years ago, Alysse Kushinski spent part of the first year of her PhD program at the picket lines of York University. This week, she’s back.

Kushinski has been picketing since last Monday with students in her Ryerson-York joint communication and culture graduate program (ComCult) and others from her 3,700-member union, CUPE local 3903, who represent contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at York.

“There obviously is a sentiment amongst graduate students at York that we’re committed to labour activism, but it’s not just for show. It is as a resistance to a lot of the moves from the university,” said Kushinski, who also works as a graduate assistant at the university.

The strike, came after CUPE 3903 voted to reject York’s final settlement offer last week. Strikes have previously occurred at York in 1997, 2001, 2008-2009 and most recently in 2015.

York’s extensive history of strikes has affected Ryerson students in the joint ComCult graduate program, who had their classes at York suspended last week, and the many other students at the school – such as Kushinski – who have been affected by the disruption.

In 2015, Kushinski says she had to drop a class specifically because of the strike – putting her behind an entire semester.

“The strike affects people negatively, mostly because we don’t know what’s happening. It’s the day-to-day confusion of how long the strike will go on for, what type of changes we’ll have to make to our schedule, how our research will be affected into the summer. These things are incredibly confusing,” Kushinski said.

The decision to suspend York classes was made by the ComCult’s executive committee last week.

Meera Govindasamy, a first-year masters student enrolled in the ComCult program through Ryerson, says that she would have had her class suspended had she not switched into the Ryerson section of a mandatory class at the beginning of the semester.

“Depending on how long the strike goes on, if half the cohort continues to have the research methods class and the other half doesn’t…we’re not going to end up having had the same education,” Govindasamy said.

Masters and PhD students can choose either Ryerson or York as their home school for the program, but can take classes at both universities. Approximately half of the courses in the program are taught at York while the other half are taught at Ryerson. Barring a strike, students are expected to take courses at both schools simultaneously.

“We have [the] experience of dealing with this as a joint partnership, it’s not the first strike,” said Jeremy Shtern, the program’s director at Ryerson. “We are doing everything we can to help the students and make sure [the strike] has as little disruptions as possible.”

ComCult classes at Ryerson will continue as scheduled.

Shtern says that it is up to individual professors and instructors to offer accommodations to any communication and culture students who are unwilling or unable to attend class, should they choose to picket with the other graduate students at York.

Mary Grace Lao, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the program, says that there’s really no distinction between Ryerson or York enrolled students in the program.

“We do talk about that distinction about whether or not you’re York-based or Ryerson-based, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter because it’s the same program,” says Lao.

“I remember that was such a big thing that I was so fixated on – are you York-based or are you Ryerson-based, but by the fourth-year, I’m like ‘Oh well, you’re ComCult’.”

Jonathan Petrychyn, a York student enrolled in the program and the local CUPE 3903 steward for the graduate students’ association, says they are fighting to make it easier for professors to hire graduate assistants.

“The key thing to understand about all of this is it’s all about job security – that is the key thing we are going on strike for. It’s not wages, it’s not stuff like that, it’s job security and it’s a defensive strike, we’re just trying to defend the gains we made the last time,” Petrychyn said.

When asked about how long the strike may last for, Petrychyn says that it is difficult to predict.

“It’s hard to say. We would like to go back to work tomorrow. We would like York to come back to the bargaining table and bring us a fair deal that our bargaining team can take back to the membership.”

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