Tuesday, December 30, 2008

One Wild Week

Usually, the last weekend of the National Football League regular season leaves a lot to be desired. Drama is promised, but the reality is that many teams at this stage of the season are merely going through the motions. There may be a playoff spot or two up for grabs but the reality is the last week of the season offers little more than glorified exhibition games.

Week 17 of the 2008 season would change all that.

In the American Football Conference, the wild card races offered very little in the form of drama, as the results were predictable: the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots both defeated the woefully underachieving Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills (respectively), ensuring that the No. 6 spot went to Baltimore. This left the division races for the AFC East and West, where the real drama was. The Patriots still had a hope if the New York Jets could defeat the Miami Dolphins, but Miami would prevail in a back-and-forth game that was easily the best game all afternoon. In the process, the Dolphins (11-5) became the first team to win a division a year after finishing 1-15 as well as ensure New England would be the first 11-5 team out of the playoffs since the 1985 Denver Broncos. In the West, the division title would be determined by the winner of the night game between the San Diego Chargers and the Broncos (the “NFL Playoff Play-in Game”, if you will). The winner wasn’t much of a shock- San Diego had won three straight going into the game, the Broncos had lost two straight- but the result was. One expected Denver, trying to avoid becoming the first team to blow a three game division lead with three games to go, to come up with an inspired effort, but they could only offer a flaccid performance in a 52-21 loss to San Diego. The Chargers did win their third straight division title, but it was their most improbable- a month ago they were 4-8 and written off, but like baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies in 2007 against the New York Mets, they ran the table to overcome those odds to claim the title. The Broncos and their defence probably meant that they didn’t deserve a title anyway, but even still, there’s no excuse for their monumental collapse.

Even with the Chargers’ and Dolphins’ completion of their improbable runs, the NFC would still outdo the AFC. At the start of the day, the Philadelphia Eagles were 8-6-1 and needed everything short of a planetary alignment to get themselves in the playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings all stood in front of them at 9-6, with the Bears and Vikings still battling for the NFC North division title with the loser still in the running for the wild card. The Eagles would play the Cowboys themselves, but Tampa Bay was playing the woeful Oakland Raiders, Chicago was playing the already eliminated Houston Texans and Minnesota was playing the New York Giants, who already knew they were the No. 1 seed. Minnesota would be the only team of that group which won, as Chicago and Tampa Bay both lost close games in a pair of upsets. The Eagles were thus still in the playoff picture when they faced Dallas, and it must have buoyed them since the Eagles literally ran all over the Cowboys in a 44-6 rout. Not to be forgotten would be the Detroit Lions- or should I say “Kittens”- who made NFL history in a 31-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers, ensuring that they are 0-16. Here’s hoping that is the bottom for Detroit, because I can’t imagine what that kind of losing streak would feel like.

Much of the talk after Sunday’s games focused on the futures of both the Cowboys and the Jets’ (for now) Brett Favre. There’s little to say about the Cowboys except that they just blew it, with the chief culprit being head coach Wade Phillips. Phillips never got the team to play as a team and could never be convincingly in control of his troops. Terrell Owens needs no introduction here, since he obviously believes he’s the coach in insisting that he (and new buddy Roy Williams) should receive the ball more, admonishing Tony Romo for throwing to Jason Witten (easily Dallas’ most reliable receiver, if not the only one). However, against Philadelphia it was obvious that it wasn’t just Owens who was causing problems- in the 2nd quarter, facing a 4th-and-short, Romo waved off the punting team that Phillips sent out and ran a (successful) play himself. If that’s not an indicator that Phillips has lost control of his team I don’t know what is, since there’s no excuse for letting your own players overrule you. Taking heed of their suggestions is one thing but letting them tell you what to do is another. Speaking of Romo, it may be time to part ways with him- he clearly can’t handle the pressure of being the Dallas quarterback, a mentality issue that prevents him from becoming a truly elite quarterback. Owens could go too, although if owner/General Manager Jerry Jones does the right thing and hire a disciplinarian head coach that might temper Owens and allow him to shine more as a receiver.

Favre’s future was dicey before coach Eric Mangini was fired earlier today. Reports indicated that Mangini didn’t like Favre’s decision-making and- like he does for the rest of his players- called out Favre for them in front of the team. This was not how Favre was treated in Green Bay (where he had his own “office”) and had Mangini stayed, Favre may have retired. With Mangini gone, Favre may just stick around, because he can still play- he didn’t get the Jets to 8-3 by doing nothing. The interceptions are still terrible, but the truth is in the last five games, the Jets’ short passing attack has failed them (for example, where was Dustin Keller, the highly touted tight end at mid-season), meaning Favre has to throw it long. Thus, the Jets’ focus this off-season should be at the tight end spot to give Favre a short passing option he can trust, because that is what ultimately did the Jets in during their December collapse.

That story will be revisited in the offseason. Now, the regular season is over and the Playoffs can begin. With so many bizarre finishes in Week 17, who knows what will be in store for the Playoffs. One thing is certain though- with the crazy ride that was Week 17, this can only mean the real Playoffs are going to be fun.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

As The Strike Continues, So Does York’s Unhappy Holiday (Part 2)

Now that we’ve established that neither side have conducted themselves well in this strike, it is time to establish what needs to be done to solve this mess. This is a three-pronged strategy, starting with binding arbitration, continuing with both sides hiring more reasonable management teams and the establishment of the teaching sector as an essential service.

Since it’s obvious that a negotiated settlement is too distant at this stage, the only hope for a quick settlement is binding arbitration. Before I begin this point, let me take a minute to explain how it really works, because CUPE’s missives are simply wrong. CUPE argues that any “binding” settlement takes the average of all the other settlements in their sector to come up with a figure for their agreement. This would mean, for example, that since their wages are the highest in Ontario their wages would be reduced because it’s not at the average. It’s great propaganda, but that’s not how it works- there’s no reason to apply an average with figures not even close to an average as it currently stands. What does happen is the arbitrator examines both arguments, sees the figures and assesses which one is more reasonable. The arbitrator may look at other agreements for precedent so that if the current agreement does not have figures that could be considered “fair” for workers in the sector, the future agreement can be brought in line with fairer numbers. There’s nothing in the current agreement- especially with regards to wages, the highest in Ontario- that could be considered “unfair” for the workers, so it’s likely the binding agreement won’t significantly shortchange either side. Besides, the strike ended in 2001 with binding arbitration, so there is historical precedent for that move.

However, before binding arbitration is formally proposed, both sides should be forced back to the table and hold meaningful negotiations. The provincial mediator appointed to the talks, Greg Long, was wrong to suspend the talks. He was correct in his assessment that talks were going nowhere because neither side was doing enough to have meaningful discussions, but suspending the talks does nothing to solve the problem. It’s his job as a mediator to find the common ground and get the talks moving. Besides, forcing the two sides to talk might just spur productive conversations anyway. The province needs to formally push both sides back to the table and let them hack away at an agreement for a few days and if no progress is made, order binding arbitration through back-to-work legislation. It’s likely that’s how the strike will be resolved anyway since talks haven’t been meaningful, but negotiations should be given a fairer shot than they have been first.

Once the strike is resolved, it is time for York and CUPE to clean house at the management level. When the TA’s at Queen’s rejected a move to be unionized, they specifically cited the problems at York. At York, the Queen’s TA’s mentioned, relations are venomous, producing a culture of antagonism on both sides. This is nothing but perfect fermenting ground for strikes, and there’s no other source for relations like that but at the top.

It’s hard to argue with the Queen’s TA’s over their assessment. In the past eleven years, York has experienced three strikes (the 2000 and 2008 CUPE strikes and a 1997 strike by its professors’ union), indicating an administration that clearly doesn’t know how to deal with its own employees. That alone would be reason enough to hire new management at York, but that’s just icing on the filthy cake of York’s many indiscretions. The history of strikes and near-strikes on the CUPE side also shows a history of mismanagement of relations between the union and York, with other missteps- such as disrupting the exams of Schulich and Osgoode (separate Faculties at York unaffected by the strike) and the occupation of Shoukri’s office (instead of going back to the negotiating table to talk)- further hinders the lot of CUPE management. Both sides have had enough time to establish positive relations yet consistently it moves in the opposite direction, so it’s time for both sides to install power figures who can be more cordial and reasonable with each other.

Lastly, it’s time to ensure that disruptions of this caliber do not happen again and you do that by preventing strike action entirely. I do wish to stress that I am not arguing that unions (or even striking) be made illegal, because the right to unionize and to strike offers protection to employees against overzealous employers that is still vital to this day. Most unions are noble, being mindful of their situations and only strike if the situation truly calls for it, and it would be unfair to punish those unions because of the actions of an overzealous few (like CUPE); and even there most unions do not work in the public sector so there’s no point for the government to regulate employee-employer relations.

However, when those unions do work in the public sector and provide a vital service- such as CUPE- a strike unfairly hampers the lives of people who depend on the strikers’ service and those unions should not be allowed to strike by having their work declared an “essential service”. Put in other terms: if workers at the GM plant in Oshawa go on strike, then the public does not get the chance to purchase a GM car, a product they can live without. If CUPE strikes, then students are denied an education, a service they vitally need to be productive workers in Canada and thus is a service that cannot inherently be denied. It’s a tag that shouldn’t just be applied to CUPE but the other teaching sectors (including the professors and elementary and secondary school teachers) across Ontario as well (I’d also love transit across the province to get this designation but that’s an argument for another day). The essential service designation wouldn’t mean a total halt to disruptions, since all the work TA’s and contract faculty would be required to perform is to hold classes; and work not related to that (such as office hours and perhaps even marking by TA’s) would not be required. It still wouldn’t be a perfect scenario for students but at least they will be able to obtain the service they require- their education- without having to worry about the relations between employer and employee. The students are the most important part of any school and it is unfair to drag them into a situation they are unable to have any say in.

That’s my plan for solving this mess. It’s unlikely that’s how it will play out, since the Ontario government rarely gets involved in situations like this (unless it’s the Toronto Transit Commission) and the way both CUPE and York handle themselves it’s unlikely they’ll drastically alter their relations with each other. Binding arbitration is still likely; albeit probably late in January meaning the undergrads’ year is effectively lost. However, if York and CUPE want real changes and real solutions to their problems they will drastically alter the way they conduct their business. Otherwise, this is just going to be another struggle in already titanic war, a war students are unwittingly and unfairly a part of. If both sides truly care about the students (like they say they are) they will end the war- otherwise their mollifying words are just going to ring hollow and that’s not how any school should ever operate.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

As The Strike Continues, So Does York’s Unhappy Holiday (Part 1)

“Deep in the heart of the York U jungle
You can hear the unions rumble
Ooooh Ooooh
Strike U! Strike U”

-Graffiti written on a scaffolding wall during the construction of the (now completed) William Small Commons Parking Structure, 2001. The writing is a play on the “fight chant” at the time for York’s varsity teams (then known as the Yeomen), with the original’s “yeomen” being replaced with “union” and “York” with “Strike”.

Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones to have completed my undergraduate studies at York University when I did. I studied History from September 2001 to April 2006, starting my studies less than a year after the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 3903, representing the University’s Teaching and Graduate Assistants as well as “contract” (i.e., non-tenured) faculty, brought York to a standstill for 78 days. Classes had to be extended well into May just to complete the semester, severely cutting into summers students so desperately needed to work in order to pay for their studies. CUPE 3903 threatened to strike twice more when I was studying, in October 2002 and again in 2005, with deals only being reached at the 11th hour. However, the volatility of the situation meant midnight was going to strike sooner rather than later, which it did on November 6, 2008. Then, the over 3,000 members of CUPE 3903 walked off the job after negotiations again broke down with the University, with no resolution in sight after 44 days of striking. Instead, what is happening is both sides are attacking each other and blaming the other side for holding up negotiations, hoping the other side cracks so they can begin talking again. This dangerous game of chicken might work at General Motors when there’s no third party in play, but here there is, as both sides’ selfish war of attrition is needlessly inconveniencing the year of York’s students who are supposed to be the most important part of the University.

On the union side, ostensibly, there are two central issues at play in the strike- wages (surprise, surprise) and job security for contract (i.e., “non-tenured”) faculty. I won’t take a lot of time to comment on the demands, except to say that neither side has it right. With regards to wages, CUPE is hoping for an effective raise of anywhere between 22%-47%, expecting York to raise their already exorbitant salaries so they can be in line with the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) in Toronto (roughly $23,000 a year). There’s nothing wrong with wanting income to get to COLA, but TA’s already get $36/hr. for 10 hours a week and, despite CUPE’s many pleas to the contrary, nothing stops them from getting outside work (it’s just not preferred, but then again it’s preferred that undergraduates don’t get outside work either and we all know that’s not possible for many of them). Conversely, York has it wrong on the contract faculty issue, as York refuses to allow long-time contract faculty to get tenured positions. The reasons are monetary, but if a professor keeps on receiving new contracts from the University, isn’t it clear that York should just keep them around forever anyway?

However, neither of those two issues are the primary reasons why both are still miles apart from a deal (and the bargaining table, it seems). The real issue is 2010. That’s the year CUPE is hoping all of its locals will have contracts ending so they can have a “co-ordinated” bargaining session with not just the universities but also the province. The goal is to orient the university TA’s in much the same manner as the elementary and secondary school teacher unions in Ontario having, in effect, one province-wide union. Thus, CUPE 3903 is demanding a two-year deal to ensure that they will have a seat at the province-wide bargaining with their brethren, while York is countering with a three-year settlement.

Amidst the knowledge of the length of this strike and the one in 2000, there is some justified fear that a lengthy province-wide shutdown will occur in a year and a half (which may be why York wants its deal to expire after 2010). Five schools already have contracts expiring in 2010- Ryerson, McMaster, Ottawa, Windsor and Brock- and four other schools (including York) are in bargaining in the hopes of getting a 2010 expiry. CUPE’s responses to the fears is that they’re going to use the opportunity to push for gains for all students, including undergrads. However, aside from a scant mention of a tuition freeze (but only if CUPE manage tuition protection for themselves), there’s little in the Ontario University Workers Co-ordinating Committee Action Plan document that speaks directly to undergrad needs, and a lot that speaks to CUPE members’ needs (to see the document itself, go here http://www.cupe.on.ca/aux_file.php?aux_file_id=870).

What you will see in the Action Plan- if you go to Page 8 of the section “Projects to Improve the Bargaining Committee” you’ll see an entire page devoted to the propaganda campaign they’ll unleash onto the unsuspecting student bodies of the universities. There, CUPE explains they’ll hold barbecues, pub nights, “exam de-stressors” and other student events to make them appear that they’re a student-friendly organization. However, there’s nothing honest about that intention, since CUPE is only going to be friendly to ensure that students don’t rally against them in the event of a strike. There’s only one word to describe an action like that: “sickening”. Just like this strike the students will be used as pawns, and there’s nothing “student-friendly” about that.

Of course, it’s not like York University can have a pass from criticism either. This is an institution that has been insalubrious ever since I stepped foot on the (faux) hallowed grounds of the Keele Campus that September day. It’s so bad that my brother and I often joked about York that it was “the University that taught logic but never used it”. Some of those examples are merely comical, such as York’s decisions to close underground passageways at night (when it is the coldest) or entirely; or York’s decision to design the school (reportedly) after a campus in Arizona (hence all the wind tunnels, which make sense in the searing desert heat but never in the dead of Canadian winter). Other examples are simply disturbing, such as the fact the only weapons of defence that York Security has are notepads (I know Voltaire once said “the pen is mightier than the sword” but I doubt *that* is what he meant) or the inexcusable decision by then York President Lorna Marsden to suspend Daniel Freeman-Maloy for three years simply because he used a megaphone. More recently, the University sat idly as reports of sexual assaults grew on campus, culminating in a disturbing “residence room invasion” and a creeper on campus during the last academic year.

So it’s no surprise that the “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” administration bungled the negotiation process here as well, despite also having noble intentions. On top of rejecting the entirely reasonable demand by CUPE that contract faculty have somewhat better job security, York’s many missteps have been calling for binding arbitration right from the start (as opposed to having fruitful negotiations) and “negotiating through the media”, providing a strawman version of CUPE’s demands to the press in the hopes of simply winning the Public Relations battle. The worst part is that the President of York, Mamdouh Shoukri, has been visibly absent throughout the whole ordeal, as if he thinks that not addressing the problem will make it go away. That sure isn’t a trait I’d want in my leader.

York’s Remediation Plan- released on December 18- also does not offer much hope for a quick settlement. Assignment due dates and/or exams cannot be scheduled (or rescheduled) until the course has had at least its second class after the strike ends, but that’s as much relief that students will get. The plan calls for a “maximum” (not minimum) 2.5 weeks of class time to make up for the remaining month that was left of the Fall semester and exams to be scheduled over 12 days. Allowing further compression is the ability for York to schedule classes on “virtual” days, meaning, for example, if a class normally meets only once a week it could meet another day of the week to fit its second class in. The real kicker is a provision calling for a Winter Semester to be no longer than 55 days (11 weeks of Monday-Friday classes), with an exam schedule that is also just a dozen days.

Doing the math, this provides a “best possible” end (including exams) to the 2008/09 year on May 8, if an agreement is reached right on January 5 (when York reopens from the Christmas break). This would allow a “normal” 13-week Summer schedule but there’s no reason why York wouldn’t shorten that either. The 2001 strike ended in mid-January, so if this strike also ends then (which I’ll place at January 16), the end of the Winter term (allowing it to start on a Monday) comes on May 22, necessitating the shortening of Summer by a week. To run two straight semesters of 55 days and a dozen day long exam period, the strike would need to be resolved no later than January 26. However, don’t forget that York’s Plan stated the last round of Fall classes would take place over a “maximum” of 2.5 weeks, not a minimum. Allowing for York’s “virtual day” provision, presumably classes could be held over just a week for a two-week exam period coupled with a 55-day Winter and Summer terms, meaning the latest date for the strike would be February 6 (so that the final “Fall week” could be on February 9 with exams on February 16-27). Based on the math, at the very least it’s hard to suggest that York would be willing to negotiate meaningfully until late January- if it doesn’t subvert the process by bringing in a “forced ratification vote”, the government (or both) first.

Those are the issues surrounding the strike. Tomorrow I will highlight what needs to be done to resolve this strike and ensure that this problem doesn’t happen again.