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Universities, Strikes, and Labour Law

I blogged last month about the strike at York University in Toronto. The strike is still going on (now in its 3rd month).

One of the quirks of having a labour dispute at a university is that some of the people at the university (primarily professors) will often have have special expertise in issues relevant to labour disputes, such as labour law, labour relations, finance, accounting, and, well, ethics.

At York, one good example of someone with such expertise is law prof David Doorey. As it happens, Doorey writes a labour law blog. Doorey’s blog entry from 2 days ago poses an interesting question. He poses it as a legal question, but it could just as easily be re-cast as an ethical one.

It seems the Deans of the various faculties at York made the unusual move of sending out a memo, directly to the employees on strike, encouraging them to vote in favour of the University’s current offer. The question Doorey posed to his readers: does this memo contravene sections of Canada’s Labour Relations Act that forbid employers from exerting certain kinds of pressure directly on union members (as opposed to dealing with union leaders)?

Even if the answer turns out to be „no“ (i.e., even if no, the Deans‘ memo didn’t contravene the Act) there still remains the ethical question: is it ethical for managers (which is what Deans are, at Universities) to communicate directly with employees during a strike, or is such communication always at least vaguely coercive, given the power asymmetries involved?

My initial instinct is that the Deans‘ letter is at least not clearly unethical. In order for the Deans‘ memo to be taken as implying some sort of threat, it has to be the case that a Dean could know how a particular union member had voted. But they presumably won’t know that. If there’s a threat here, it’s a very vague and probably implausible one.

On the other hand, the strike won’t last forever. And when it’s done, and when the University goes back to business as usual, the Deans will go back to their roles as managers and the strikers will go back to their roles as educator/employees. It’s easy to imagine that the Deans‘ memo — and perhaps their interference, and at least the hint of a vague threat — will be remembered, and resented.

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