Picketing may have ended, but the effects of the recent labour disruption are still impacting businesses across campus.
By Ethan Saks | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | April 21, 2019
Dust hangs in the bar’s beer-scented air, twinkling through the naturally lit room like falling stars. Rickety chairs and scuffed tables shows the age of the pub.
On March 5, 2018, the Absinthe pub (known by patrons as “the Ab”), an aging bar hidden in the basement of one of York University’s nine colleges, is having one of its busiest days of the year.
Students order pint after pint. A lone bartender tries to keep up, running from one side of the bar to the other, pouring shots of vodka, tequila, rum, shaking cocktails, filling pint glasses with cheap beer and scraping the cascading foam off the top with a knife. But despite the smiles and laughter filling the room, the pub’s management team is grim. Students are celebrating the beginning of the third strike that has occurred at York University in the last 10 years.
Discussions about a labour disruption at York had been brewing long before the beginning of the 2017 school year. CUPE 3903 members—York’s local union representing teaching assistants, contract faculty, and graduate assistants—are unhappy with their current contracts, despite the university administration declaring that it is one of the best in the sector. Picketing began on March 5, and saw union members blocking every major roadway leading to the university. An anonymous union member says that they’re “one of the only unions in Ontario who are willing to strike.”
Two weeks later, the sprawling campus will be abandoned, and Ian Pedley, general manager of the Ab for over 30 years, will be praying that the pub can sell more than just a couple of pints each day. Campus restaurants, bars, convenience stores, and everything in-between struggle to stay afloat. This kind of thing tends to happen when over 50,000 students are forced to stop attending classes.
“Here’s how it works,” Pedley says. His office mimics the financial state of the pub. Paperwork covers the entire desk—Sky Vodka and Budweiser signs hang loose and angled on the walls. He takes hits from an e-cigarette the size of his hand while explaining everything that’s gone wrong since the picketing began.
“During a strike, the first week of business is okay. Students know there’s no classes, and that there’s nothing to do, so they want to socialize in the pub. After the strike drags on they start to wonder why they’re spending all their money at York without learning anything. Then they go home. You know what I mean?”
Once the students started to go home, and the restaurant was left empty, Pedley says that next to nothing was done to help the businesses on campus survive. Not a single thought was given about the impact that the strike might have had on their profits.
“There was no support,” he says. “None.”
Shopsy’s Sports Grill, a popular student bar located in the middle of one of York’s bustling food courts, also fell victim to the university’s lack of support. Since picketing began, their profits have plummeted. Only one week after the beginning of the labour disruption, the expansive pub is nearly empty.
Laura Bannon, a server, bartender, and occasional administrative assistant at Shopsy’s since August 2016, says that the lack of support from the university made a significant impact on how the restaurant has had to operate.
“We cut hours and had to lay people off. We had to let go of all the bussers and hostesses, and the servers were cut in half. That’s over 15 people,” says Bannon.
The Ab tries to figure out ways to bring in customers before letting anybody go. Around the beginning of April, over a month since the strike began, Pedley tries to fill his empty bar by offering the CUPE 3903 picketers a place to relax, eat, and drink. He refers to these events as “picketing parties.”
There is irony in the fact that the union members who are sitting at tables, drinking, laughing, and helping the Ab survive, are simultaneously contributing to the downfall of one of Ontario’s last student-run bars. The decline of what used to be a diamond in the rough for social culture at York—a place where students could meet up, drink, study, and party, sometimes all at the same time. The strike is tearing The Ab to the ground.
“I’ve cancelled our Christmas Party,” Pedley says in the midst of explaining all the small things he’s had to do to keep the business afloat. “We open at three in the afternoon because we lose more money than we earn if we open earlier. The strike continues to impact us because our customer base is no longer here.”
Eventually, Pedley did have to let some of his staff go. Less business means less money for the employees. He laid off close to half of his staff because their payroll was becoming too cumbersome. “They’re students,” Pedley says. “They need the money just as much as the restaurant.”
Bannon shares the same concerns as Pedley regarding the staff who were let go.
“Most of our staff are students,” she says. “They have tuition and bills to pay.” Besides the lack of classes, some students are now also out of work.
Some restaurants remained closed for the entirety of the strike, leaving all of their staff jobless. Me-Va-Me Kitchen Express, a popular Mediterranean restaurant attached to one of York’s new residence buildings left a note on their doors that they would reopen at the end of the labour disruption. The restaurant did not survive.
On July 25, 2018, over 140 days after the official start of the longest labour disruption in Canadian post-secondary history, CUPE 3903 members stop picketing as the newly elected Conservative provincial government passes back-to-work legislation. Union members, students, and university staff are left confused about what happens next. Discussions about the future begin to brew. Devin Lefebvre, recently appointed chairman of CUPE 3903, insinuates that another strike might not be far away.
“A lot of work needs to be done to make sure that, come 2020, we don’t have to do this all over again and the same mistakes aren’t made,” Lefebvre says. CUPE 3903 is already preparing for battle.
Nobody fears the looming shadow of a future strike more than the businesses that are still recovering from the last one. Restaurants like the Ab and Shopsy’s are still trying everything they can to get back on their feet.
“During the strike was the hardest,” Bannon says. “We’ve gained back a fair amount of business, but it’s still nothing like it used to be. It’s been especially hard because enrollment is down now too, which of course impacts the amount of customers we see on a daily basis.”
Enrollment numbers traditionally fall after a strike. Following CUPE 3903’s 2008 labour disruption, the beginning of the 2009 school year saw high school applications to York fall from 6,331 students to 5,891, a drop of almost 500 students.
After a month long labour disruption that occurred in March 2015, enrollment numbers decreased by over 4,500 students in arts, humanities, and social science programs compared to the previous year. Science programs also followed this downwards trend and decreased by over 900 students at the start of the 2016 school year.
Less students means less customers. They are the reason campus restaurants are able to exist in the first place. Bannon, who has been serving students for over three years, says it also doesn’t help that the students who are enrolled seem to be fed up with the university.
“Students don’t want to be on campus,” she says. This is a regular opinion among her customers. “Instead of staying on campus and going to its bars and restaurants, they’d rather leave when they’re done class and go somewhere else.”
The Ab is doing everything it can think of to bring students into the pub, and keep the establishment running. Aside from taking a loan from one of the university’s college councils, Pedley is also trying to bring in local bands, hoping that the members will bring friends to support them and buy a few pints. Furthering the fight for survival, Pedley is also trying to think of new events, and is pushing some of the past favourites, such as lingerie night, and karaoke competitions, more than he ever has in the past.
“We’re trying to survive,” Pedley says. “We’re trying everything we can to keep the doors open. A strike changes everything.”
Shopsy’s and the Ab still stand. They struggle to survive more than usual, but both establishments seem to be pulling through. The possibility of another strike is frightening, and neither restaurant may survive another 140 days of picketing without customers.
For the Ab, Pedley says that another strike “is not an option.” It would be debilitating, and without question, the Ab would go under.
Ethan Saks is a freelance writer, Senior Submissions Editor and Developer for The Scribbler. For inquiries, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.