Strike possibility looms

U of T faces the possibility of a teaching assistant strike if ongoing negotiations fail between admin and unit 1 of CUPE 3902 the union representing TAs university-wide. 3902 and the university have jointly applied for conciliation at the Ontario labour board to help mediate negotiations in January. Over 1,100 union members cast a ballot in December with around 700 of them voting in favour of a strike if talks break down.

“The university continues to bargain with CUPE 3902 and we are hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that is acceptable to both parties without a strike,” said Angela Hildyard, VP human resources & equity.

The union’s demands include: childcare assistance for students who are parents, measures to address large tutorial and lab sizes, wages that keep up with inflation, health benefits, and tuition assistance for unfunded students. At present TAs earn $36.5 per hour. The union argues that this amounts annually to $3,500 below the U of T’s published cost-of-living estimate of $18,500 per annum.

The union is seeking public health care coverage for international students, who currently pay out-of-pocket for private, for-profit coverage under the University Health Insurance Plan. Of particular concern to the union is the university’s proposal to eliminate the tuition assistance fund, which helps graduate students in programs with deregulated tuition.

In the face of a TA strike at York University, classes for 50,000 York students have been discontinued indefinitely. Contract faculty and TAs walked off the job on Nov. 9 with job security and graduate funding among their key demands.

A similar situation is unlikely at U of T, given that bargaining has been ongoing for months with both parties showing a desire to work constructively. The union has received support from the U of T Students Union and Graduate Students Union. “Nobody wants a strike, but students and university employees have to stand together to defend accessible education. We support our TAs for trying to do so,” said UTSU president Sandy Hudson.

Students in Support of CUPE is a newly formed ad hoc group of undergraduates. They hope to avert a strike by pressuring the U of T administration to offer a fair contract to teaching staff. Additionally, they aim to provide educational programming to inform students about issues facing university workers. “They deserve job security. What they’re asking for is not outrageous and it is an issue of social justice and that’s why we’re on their side. Their [TA’s] working conditions are our learning conditions,” says group member Parmibir Gill.

“We don’t want to go on strike. It’s disruptive to undergrads and to our members. It’s the last option when all else fails, but we certainly hope we aren’t forced into that option,” says Rebecca Sanders, Teaching Assistant at U of T. The last TA strike was held in 2000, followed by U of T’s announcement it would offer graduate funding guarantees. U of T was the first university in the country to offer minimum guaranteed funding to students in most graduate programs.

Israel is not “the enemy”

Background

There are three constants in life: death, taxes, and Israel taking the blame for every misery suffered by the Palestinians. The Western media’s coverage of the latest conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas is no exception. We can already see a general consensus: Israel is accused of being belligerent and trigger happy, a practitioner of human rights violations.

It is not surprising that most observers have offered little to no appropriate context in which to view these events. For example, none of the major media outlets have deemed it necessary to point out the elephant in the room: Hamas, an avowed terrorist organization that presides over the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, is constitutionally committed to Israel’s destruction (“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it”—The Hamas Charter). In ruminating on why Israel has completely “moved to the right” and seemingly “crossed off” diplomacy as a viable solution, my colleague Mr. Mahmoud and others would do well to keep Hamas’ nature in mind. Coupled with repeated violations of established cease-fires and a constant rain of rockets on Israeli civilian centres, is it any wonder that Israeli citizens usually regard peace overtures with cynicism?

Geopolitics

The issue of human rights needs context as well. My colleague criticizes Israel for kicking out U.N. Human Rights special rapporteur Richard Falk, arguing that such a move was “undemocratic.” But Falk—a man who has previously called Israel’s practices in the occupied territories “genocidal” and deemed suicide bombings against Israeli civilians a valid method of “struggle”—is indicative of the U.N.’s abject failure in objectivity. With no criterion for member selection other than geography, the current U.N. Human Rights Council features an all-star cast of human rights violators, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In its first year of operation in 2007, the council condemned only one state—Israel—despite the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the systematic starvation of the North Korean people by their dictator Kim Jong-il. Israel has committed its share of human rights violations, but one cannot objectively assess its flaws with information from such a biased source.

Security Considerations

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the term “disproportionate force” should be clarified. It is true that current UN estimates place Palestinian deaths at 400 and injuries at 2,100, while only three Israeli civilians have been killed. But behind these numbers lies a clear distinction: while Hamas specifically targets Israeli civilians, the IDF operates on the basis of minimizing civilian casualties against an enemy that uses its own population for cover and camouflage. It is not surprising that so many Palestinian civilians have been killed or injured in the ongoing violence when its own elected government uses them as human shields. The current conflict gives us the example of a responsible, democratic Israeli government defending its people by hunting down the initiators of violence, contrasted with a manipulative Hamas government that defends its militants through its citizenry.

Even under an alleged blockade, Israel has transferred 6,500 tons of food and medicine to Gaza since operations began, while the World Food Program has discontinued shipments of food because Gaza’s warehouses are full. It is entirely possible, especially given the horrible conditions my colleague describes, that most of this humanitarian aid will go to waste as Hamas confiscates it for its own militants and party operatives.

What does 2009 hold for the Middle East conflict?

My colleague ends with a legitimate question: how can Israel expect peace? As someone who believes that Palestinians need and deserve their own state, it is difficult to see any good following from Israel’s current actions. Israel certainly lays its own obstacles to peace in the form of continuous settlements in the West Bank (carried out by rogue Jewish zealots), ironically undermining the legitimacy of its more moderate Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. But if violence is slowly becoming the only road for Israel to go down, it is just as much a result of Palestinian militancy as it is Israeli bellicosity. Peace and diplomacy requires a modicum of mutual trust, but it is hard to trust an opposing side whose government desires your destruction and wantonly attacks your civilians. And consider Israel’s disappointments: Camp David failed in 2000 despite Israel giving in to almost all of Yasser Arafat’s demands; a 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza has only seen more rockets hit closer to the Israeli interior; and a democratic Palestinian election replaced a corrupt negotiating partner in Fatah with the terrorist outfit Hamas. In provoking Israeli retaliation, it is not Israel but Hamas who has hammered the final nail in the coffin of a lasting peace deal.

Joshua Xiong is the President of Zionists @ University of Toronto

Student leaders boycott democracy committee

Vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak officially disbanded her Advisory Committee on Democratic Processes in Student Government on Dec. 8, after student unions collectively decided to pull out.

The committee, made up of students and faculty members, was created by Misak in November 2008 to advise under what conditions the administration could withhold student union funding. Earlier, Misak was called in to freeze Arts & Science Student Union funds following a rigged election. While university policies give the provost authority to freeze funding in case of undemocratic procedure, the student unions have either refused to accept this authority, or been skeptical of it.

According to Graduate Students’ Union VP external Sara Suliman, the committee’s purpose was unclear. She says there was no written terms of reference clearly stating the committee’s objective, and that they were perturbed by the lack of specificity. Arts & Science Student Union president Colum Grove-White adds, “I was upset with the way the communication was handled. It made student groups very suspicious about what the admins’ motives were.”

A major grievance on behalf of student representatives was the committee’s membership structure. Numerous student members were asked to sit on the committee as individuals, not as representatives of their respective student union constituencies. Suliman says, “You are not able to detach yourself from your experiences as a representative.”

After several of the unions including GSU and U of T Students’ Union boycotted, Misak suspended the committee in early December. She told student unions that there would be no discussion regarding the terms of the committee, and that students could opt not to participate. The student leaders from GSU, ASSU, UTSU, Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students, and the two satellite campus unions elected to leave.

Misak said she will unilaterally set up a list of guidelines to follow, regardless of the committee’s presence.

UTSU president Sandy Hudson said that participating in the advisory committee would have legitimized the administration’s claim on the authority to withhold funds. She said that the union was now in a better position to contest an admin decision and withhold its levy.

Misak states in her letter to the members: “I had wanted student leaders to be participants in these discussions, but by their own volition, they will not be involved in it.” Grove-White remains optimistic, saying that regular meetings are going to be set up between student leaders and the provost, tackling real issues that matter to the students. “If we get some proper communication going,” he says, “it could be a really positive thing.”

One hard-earned win for the good fight

It took nine months of delays and stressful court proceedings, but charges against the “Fight Fees 14” (FF14) are finally starting to be withdrawn. Nine of the 14 activists have had their charges rescinded completely, and the remaining five expect to be vindicated soon. The fate of the students who remain threatened with investigation under U of T’s Code of Student Conduct (possibly resulting in suspension or expulsion) hangs in the balance.

These withdrawals expose the charges for what they were: groundless and politically motivated actions, part of a crackdown on student dissent by the university administration. They were a result of the Crown’s failure to provide complete disclosure in court, most likely due to a lack of evidence and public pressure—the aftermath of last March’s peaceful Simcoe Hall sit-in against student fee hikes and unaffordable housing. The protest ended when police, acting on orders from senior U of T administrators, broke up the demonstration with aggression. The bail conditions imposed on alleged participants—which sought to restrict any protest against fee hikes on campus—were particularly worrisome to advocates of free speech.

Despite the threats that March 20’s events revealed, protest wasn’t quelled. As the story gained momentum, more students and workers became outraged. The Committee for Just Education (CJE), which formed soon after the sit-in, was designed to withstand increasing pressure from university staff and police. Working towards similar goals—the elimination of tuition fees, student and worker parity in decision-making, and an end to the repression of dissent—they organized follow-up demonstrations and an emergency meeting at Steelworkers Hall. On April 10, a Governing Council meeting (during which tuition fee increases were approved) was relocated, and students were barred. When the University Affairs Board met in May to finalize tuition hikes, students came prepared. The Board acted predictably—the meeting was closed to students, then relocated to UTM.

The administration’s attempt to silence opposition comes at a time when universities are embracing corporate interests at the expense of public education. U of T is entering the realm of for-profit education, through tuition fee increases and the encouragement of corporate involvement in research. Postsecondary education is moving out of reach for the vast majority of students as a result of rising tuition fees, while academic integrity is compromised.

The abandonment of some FF14 charges is the result of political pressure from students, workers, and the community, as well as the case’s fundamental lack of substance. Unfortunately, despite students’ and workers’ clear message that the corporatization of education is unacceptable, the administration has shown no signs of amending its agenda to deregulate fees. We must act now to take control of our university, and to open its doors to our communities.

Visit www.fightfees.ca or e-mail fightfees@gmail.com to learn more about the struggle against inaccessible education, and what you can do to help.

Semra Eylul Sevi is a member of the CJE and one of the “Fight Fees 14.”

No money, mo’ problems

The current economic crisis has everyone tightening their belts, and U of T is no exception.

President David Naylor circulated through the U of T portal a cost-containment message on Dec. 15, urging staff to cut unnecessary spending, warning of tough times ahead. Naylor said endowment obligations will likely put pressure on a budget already strained by slowing donations and government funding.Endowments are used for scholarships, bursaries, and research projects, constituting $2 billion of U of T’s $5.5 billion in assets.

The memo arrived two weeks after a similar message from Cheryl Misak, Interim Vice-President and Provost.

The warnings come at a time when U of T’s stock holdings are tumbling, losing nearly nine per cent in the third quarter last year.

According to the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation, which manages U of T’s holdings, strategic investing has ensured low losses. Other universities across North America, such as Waterloo, Brown and Cornell, have already implemented hiring freezes. In a Dec. 10 statement, York University president Mamdouh Shoukri cautioned York may soon follow suit.

A November 19 memo from Misak and Cathy Riggall, VP business affairs, confirmed that the univeristy’s funds had “lost the cushion needed to sustain payouts in the absence of a recovery.” The university will find alternatives to deal with endowments that have already been promised, she said.

As for future payouts, all eyes are on the markets and U of T’s budget, which comes out in late March.

Deficit-bound Queen’s Park has yet to promise relief to help balance budgets.

“Graduate students have a disproportionate representation in the economic crisis,” Graduate Students’ Union VP External Sara Suliman told The Varsity. “If we don’t find funding, we will begin to systematically exclude students.”

Alisha Ulla, a U of T concurrent education student applying for post-graduate study, said she isn’t really concerned: “I’m not really sure how the recession would affect my education, unless fees start skyrocketing.”

Governing Council begins its public process on tuition fees in the spring, as provincial legislation caps fee hikes at an average of 4.5 per cent across all programs, and eight per cent for a single program.

Last year, Carleton University launched a campaign seeking annual donations of $50 from alumni. U of T is also considering alternative measures.

“We are not planning on addressing these financial issues with the blunt tool of an across-the-board measure, such as a general hiring freeze or an immediate base budget cut,” said Misak. Instead, possible solutions include containing expense and deferring visiting fellows.

That’s a wrap

2008 was not an encouraging year for cinema. Art-house studios like Warner Independent, Picturehouse, and Tartan closed their doors, mighty critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum lost their jobs, not a single foreign or documentary film became a sizeable hit, and Roger Ebert’s old show is now being hosted by Ben Lyons! Anyone who cares about film as an art form cannot be thrilled about the many somber developments of the past twelve months.

The silver lining? 2008 still managed to offer some great movies, and any year that includes strong work by Charlie Kaufman, Michael Haneke, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and not one but two great Wong Kar-wai films is one to be thankful for. These were my favourite films of 2008.

10. Blindness (Fernando Meilleres)

The mere fact that Fernando Meilleres’ bleak, grueling depiction of a world torn apart by an unexplained blindness pandemic received wide theatrical release is downright astonishing. Based on the apocalyptic novel by José Saramago, Blindness doesn’t shy away from exploring the plausible ramifications of its “what if?” premise, and is directed by Meilleres with exactly the right amount of style.

9. Young@Heart (Stephen Walker)

Young@Heart was not the year’s most important documentary, but it was definitely the most joyous and life-affirming. Director Stephen Walker chronicles two months in the lives of a choir of senior citizens who perform rock music, leading up to a sold-out concert, unraveling more emotional twists and turns than the average Hollywood melodrama. (I fully admit to tearing up more than once.) It’s a film that broke down every wall of critical snobbery I possessed; a real charmer.

8. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)

The Pixar Company, like Chuck Jones, Max Fleischer, Hayao Miyazaki, and Tex Avery before them, knows that making a good film for children also means making a good film for adults. Wall-E might not be their greatest work to date (after all, these are the folks who created The Incredibles and Ratatouille), but it’s definitely their most daring: you won’t see any DreamWorks animated films that begin with thirty minutes of Chaplin-esque pantomime, nor would they contain Wall-E’s subversive satire of American consumerism. Fast-paced chase scenes are squeezed in for the kids, but there’s nothing wrong with that either.

7. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri)

Jean-Claude Van Damme becomes the fall guy for a bank robbery in Mabrouk El Mechri’s clever yet surprisingly human deconstruction of celebrity culture and action movie machismo. JCVD is a witty film, but also one that takes an ironic premise and approaches it as drama, with El Mechri’s deadpan, visually-savvy directorial style announcing him as a major talent. And, highlighted by a seven-minute improvised monologue about the pitfalls of fame, “the muscles from Brussels” anchors the film with an extraordinary performance. No, seriously.

6. My Blueberry Nights (Wong Kar-wai)

Wong Kar-wai’s English-language debut was 2008’s most misunderstood film. Transplanting his signature style into an American setting with Hollywood actors (including Norah Jones, Natalie Portman, Jude Law, and the excellent David Strathairn), My Blueberry Nights is a lovely, lyrical movie that is stylistically consistent with his lighter Hong Kong films. With a signature sense of languid melancholy and beautiful, neon-drenched cinematography, Wong is in such good form that I can’t understand why anyone who liked Chungking Express or Fallen Angels wouldn’t enjoy his latest effort.

5. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)

To put it bluntly, Mickey Rourke, in his role as has-been ‘80s wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, looks like shit. Years of hard living and enough steroids to kill a small goat contribute to Rourke’s weary, lived-in performance as a man whose loneliness increases as his celebrity fades. Darren Aronofsky’s depiction of the behind-the-scenes world of professional wrestling is utterly convincing (we see Rourke and a fellow wrestler shopping for barbed wire, frying pans, and staplers to use as props), and the script by Robert D. Siegel is so emotionally charged that the day after I saw the film I was still hoping things would turn out alright for the old lug. This genuinely heartbreaking film is Aronofsky’s most mature and satisfying work yet.

4. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s shot-by-shot, English-language remake of his 1997 Austrian film is, surprisingly, just as suspenseful and emotionally devastating as the original. A meticulously crafted and well-acted thriller (Michael Pitt was this year’s other great villain), Funny Games is also a troubling commentary on the dehumanization of violence in the media. By having the killers break the fourth wall and conspire directly with the audience, Haneke dares to imply the gore-loving horror movie audience is on their moral level. Would it be unkind to suggest that certain critics were unwilling to accept a work of art that genuinely challenged their morals?

3. Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar-wai)

Buried inside most good martial arts movies is a tragedy, and Wong Kar-wai’s retooled, remastered version of his 1994 epic is one of the only kung fu films to seriously explore the psychological motivations and emotionally stunted lifestyles of the genre’s “lone warrior” archetypes. Adapted from the seminal Chinese martial arts novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes, Wong’s film is not a Crouching Tiger-style action extravaganza (the Sammo Hung-choreographed brawls are choppy and impressionistic), but rather a critical, postmodern analysis of the genre. The plot is complex (to say the least), but Ashes of Time is a dreamy, poetic film that becomes richer and more powerful upon repeated viewings.

2. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)

With his first directorial effort, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes his non-linear storytelling style to the extreme, tackling the subjects of aging, mortality, and the role of the artist in society in his most mind-bending work to date. An acclaimed theatre director in an existential crisis, Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) uses a government grant to mount an “honest” production about humanity—a life-size version of Manhattan staged within a huge warehouse. But can there be such thing as truthfulness in art, considering that the presence of an artist brings inherent subjectivity? Surreal from the get-go, Synecdoche becomes downright dizzying as Hoffman’s character goes to greater lengths to achieve his unattainable goal, to the point where watching the last third of the film is like wandering through a hall of mirrors. Kaufman’s sense of humour and the affecting performances by Hoffman and Samantha Morton make Synecdoche the most entertaining “difficult” movie in years.

1 The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s epic treatise on vigilante justice, the nature of heroism, and post-9/11 America also happens to the finest film ever made about a comic book superhero, and one of the ballsiest summer blockbusters of all time. The Dark Knight is a violent crime saga; a compelling human tragedy; a troubling political parable; a frightening depiction of urban chaos; and a damn good action movie. Perhaps the first comic book movie to question the ethical implications of its heroes while undermining the fundamental tenants of their mythos (a Batman movie that ends with Batman vilified?), Nolan has created one of the few blockbusters that evokes a real sense of danger by radically subverting clichés (an action movie where the love interest is murdered two thirds of the way in?). And yes, a certain cast member does deserve a posthumous Oscar.

York TAs back in president’s office

Striking TAs are back in York University president Mamdouh Shoukhri’s office since 6:00 p.m. last night, after a 96-hour sit-in marking the end of the wasted fall semester. An e-mail message circulated to members warns that the Liberals are preparing a legislation to force York TAs back to work.

Sleeping bags and textbooks littered the floor outside President Shoukri’s office all week starting Dec. 15, but the president himself was missing. During the sit-in YU security ejected a City TV journalist from the building.

YU spokesperson Alex Bilyk confirmed the President would not be going to his office. “In today’s day and age business can be conducted from anywhere,” he said.

Early afternoon Monday, over 120 people including members of TA union CUPE 3903, and undergrad students held a rally to escalate pressure on university administrators to reach a deal.

“We are here because the university has refused to bargain in good faith with the union for six weeks and our members want to take this week to show our resolve to win the strike,” said Dhruv Jain, a CUPE 3903 member.

The protestors demanded that Shoukri answer a list of 12 questions and commit to holding a public forum in the first week of January to discuss the strike and the issue of accessible education. In December, York Federation of Students organized a community forum. No representatives from the President’s Office showed up. YFS has been criticized for supporting the strike while undergrads are being kept out of class.

“The YFS called this forum and I believe it was a last minute type of thing. Quite frankly, it was felt that this was their meeting with their students. They did not need the administration there,” said Bilyk.

“We are here demanding York University hold a public forum to talk to us directly and not through the media,” said Victoria Barnett, undergrad and sit-in organizer.

The York University administration says that they are available to address concerns. The President made himself available after two Senate meetings to answer questions.

The Most Anticipated Films of 2009

1. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino has been talking up his “war epic” for over a decade. The disappointment of Grindhouse aside, there’s nobody who can bring vitality to old-school exploitation fodder better than Tarantino. The cast (Brad Pitt, Maggie Cheung, Mike Myers, Samuel L. Jackson, Eli Roth) is a typically intriguing Tarantinoian grab bag.

2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog was the last director I expected to tackle a remake/sequel to Abel Ferrara’s insane 1992 Scorsese-on-steroids cop movie. Let’s see if he can pull it off—and if Nicolas Cage will turn in one of his increasingly rare good performances.

3. Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese is up to his usual tricks—suspense, thrills, and tons of brooding Leonardo DiCaprio closeups.

4. Whatever Works

After a lengthy stay in Europe, Woody Allen returns to New York, and even if his films’ moral conundrums are getting a little stale, Whatever Works promises the additional consolation of Larry David in a starring role. Sounds to me like the neurotic movie event of the year!

5. This Side of the Truth

Ricky “funniest man in the world” Gervais makes his directorial debut. Incidentally, am I the only one who loved Ghost Town?

6. Watchmen

I must confess I’m not a fan of the comic book (it takes an awfully long time to say very little), but I’ve been told that if I don’t include Zack Snyder’s film on this list, I will be arrested and thrown in jail.

7. The Three Stooges

The Farrelly Brothers are currently casting this new comedy, featuring contemporary actors adopting the questionable haircuts and poor conflict resolution skills of Curly, Larry, and Moe. This is such a terrible idea that I’m dying to see it.