A look at the issues, student frustration, and college strikes through history, as Ontario students remain out of class for fourth week
By: Sam Mathers
With the Ontario college strike entering its fourth week, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the College Employer Council re-entered negotiations Thursday, talking for the first time since 12,000 faculty members from Ontario’s 24 colleges walked off the job on October 16th. The strike has left more than 500,000 students out of class and for many, it is unclear how the strike will affect their semester once faculty are back at work. Students at Confederation College in Thunder Bay have been informed that their three-week winter break will be shortened to one week to make up for lost class time. It is not known what will happen if an agreement is not reached soon.
Rebecca Ward, president of OPSEU Local 732, spoke to The Argus about the issues of the strike: “We’ve been at the bargaining table since July, and our top three items have been academic freedom, collegial governance, and reducing the precarious workforce that is happening in the college system.”
Academic freedom refers to decision making on the individual level, allowing faculty to make important decisions regarding courses, such as how to deliver and assess the content within a specific course, while collegial governance refers to decision making at the college level. It calls for a bi-cameral system, where two houses make decisions in the areas that they know best. Currently, decision making is done by administrators and a Board of Governors that is appointed by a President, and is often made up of individuals who have little understanding of what faculty and students need. The bi-cameral system would allow the Board of Governors to continue to make decisions about finances and college operations, while faculty would make decisions about course delivery, learning structure, and graduation requirements.
The precarious workforce refers to a disproportion of part-time contract staff to full-time faculty. According to Ward, “it’s really quite frightening actually, what’s happening in the system in terms of the vulnerability of the workforce coming in. We have 80% part-time faculty to 20% full-time faculty. And of course, for the part-time contract faculty, it’s a very precarious position for them. There’s zero permanency, they have no union protection, they can be let go in two weeks, their contract is one semester only, and they’re significantly underpaid. If you did the hourly sort of crunch in terms of evaluation and prep, it’s lower than minimum wage.”
But Ward says that it’s not about the money – the position of part-time contract faculty is affecting the quality of education provided for students. She notes: “part time folks are obviously having to work multiple jobs, just to sustain themselves and make a living, and they’re not paid for out of class time for students, nor do they have any time for students outside of the classroom.”
Ward believes that students are beginning to figure out how the issues brought forth by the faculty are directly affecting their education: “they’re having different people in front of them for every class…for every other semester and not being able to get the support they need outside of the classroom, so they’re putting the pieces together.”
Ontario College Strikes Throughout History
College faculty walk off the job in October in a strike over the quality of education and the workload that would last 18 days. The Ontario government legislates them back to work with an arbitrator to rule on wages, and Professor Michael Skolnick is assigned to research college educational standards. Within one year, a settlement is reached to make up for lost pay during the strike. OPSEU member Merv Lavigne files a lawsuit against the union, claiming he was forced to support causes he did not agree with because on OPSEU’s use of union dues to support social and political movements. In 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada throws out Lavigne’s case and orders costs paid to the union.
Just five years later, Ontario college faculty walk of the job again, this time for quality of education, salaries, job security, and sick leave provisions. Outstanding issues are put to mediation and arbitration, after the government threatens back-to-work legislation, just as it did in 1984. The strike lasts for 28 days and colleges across Ontario offer to refund tuition fees if students notified registrars that they were forced to withdraw from classes due to the strike.
Nearly 9,000 college staff including teachers, counsellors, and librarians walk off the job in March in a strike that lasts for 18 days. Eventually, management and the union bargaining team agree to send outstanding issues to binding arbitration, where OPSEU members are given a taskforce on workload and competitive wage increases. The International Labour Organization rule against the Ontario government for the exclusion of 16,000 part-time employees from collective bargaining, and delegates representing part-time college faculty and support staff form the Organization of Part-Time and Sessional Employees of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology in order to fight the government’s ban on unionization. John Stammers, a 62-year-old professor of accounting at Centennial College in Scarborough is killed after being struck by a car in a picket line. In 2007, OPSEU and Stammer’s family file a private prosecution over his death. The police did not initially lay charges, however the Ontario Court of Justice ruled that there are grounds to press charges of criminal negligence causing death and leaving the scene of an accident.
Poor working conditions are not just a college issue. Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act was put forth this year to improve working conditions for all sectors of employment in Ontario. Bill 148 came out of the recommendations of the Changing Workplaces Review. Initiated in 2015, the review sought to assess current labour and employment laws, namely the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act. The review recommended changes based on the current nature of the workforce, the workplace, and the economy and current societal trends, such as globalization and technological advancement.
Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, Deb Matthews has said that when the Bill is passed, it will address the issues put forth by OPSEU. Namely, Equal Pay for Equal Work, which states that individuals must be paid equally regardless of their employment status or the terms of their employment. Employees must be paid the same whether they are permanent, temporary, seasonal, or casual.
However, many unions across the province have contested certain aspects of the Bill they say do not protect workers. Unions are calling for stronger language around Equal Pay for Equal Work, as well as improvements to the provisions on an individual’s right to refuse work, the inclusion of paid leave for survivors of domestic or sexual violence, and the removal of barriers for workers to unionize.
While OPSEU and CEC remain at the bargaining table, another group of individuals are deeply affected by the negotiations. Camryn McCulloch, a student in the Marketing program at Confederation College told The Argus about how the strike has impacted her: “The strike has been incredibly frustrating. As of now, everything is really up in the air. We have no idea what to expect or what our schedules will be like when we finally head back to school. At this point, we’ve been informed that our three-week winter break will be shortened to one week to make up for lost class time. If the strike persists much longer, we’ll likely lose some of our summer break as well.”
International students are particularly vulnerable in the strike. “We’re most concerned about students in this way, from a financial point of view…they’re paying three, four times the amount of tuition and they have flights booked home,” says Ward, “if the answer to the problem when we go back to work…is that we extend the semester, that’s a significant issue for those folks.” Ward also notes the stress a college strike has on students who are financially strained, and says in the past, students have had to drop out because they could not afford the extra accommodation or time off from work.
A major issue for both students and faculty is the inability to communicate with each other. Throughout the strike, students are expected to keep up with readings, assignments, and studying. McCulloch says: “the idea is that all of our tests and assignments will be completed as soon as the strike ends. It’s difficult to be expected to do all of this without any guidance from our teachers, as we have no way to currently contact them. Studying for upcoming tests is also very difficult without the in-class PowerPoints and lectures to supplement the textbook. There’s a big difference between reading the textbook and actually having the hands-on learning, which is what many people come to Confederation College for in the first place.”
For faculty, this lack of communication is also extremely difficult. Ward says that “the college system has not allowed us to communicate with our students about these issues. So, we couldn’t set up a table, we couldn’t disseminate any information, we couldn’t use our email system. It’s been really quite challenging for us to communicate with them about these issues – what they are and why they should matter to them.”
On Wednesday, students from across Ontario gathered at Queen’s Park to urge OPSEU and CEC to come to an agreement so they can get back to class. Organized by the College Student Alliance, individuals at the Students First rally heard from Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Matthews told students they were victims caught in the middle of the strike.
The following day, #Rally4Faculty took place at Queen’s Park, with college instructors travelling from across Ontario by the busload. Individuals at the rally heard from the president of OPSEU, Warren “Smokey” Thomas, who told faculty that they were making a difference for everybody in the fight for equal pay for equal work.
McCulloch believes for the most part, that “students are frustrated with the situation, not the teachers or the college,” saying, “many of us support what the teachers are fighting for, but it’s difficult to be supportive, when the only ones suffering are the students, who have had no voice in the situation.” Ward also notes that she has received for the most part, messages of support from students. She adds, however, that “there is a stereotype about teachers, you know, how good we have it, what our incomes are like and I’ve seen the odd comment on Facebook about that – and I would love the opportunity to sit down and have conversations with students about what that really means.”
Ward believes the three priority items – academic freedom, collegial governance, and the precarious workforce “are about trying to influence the quality of education that we’re producing…we’re frustrated, we’re tired, but we’re also very energized to make a difference. This is really about students.” She says of full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and students: “We’re in this together.”
With both sides back in negotiations, an end to the strike may be in sight. Whether students and faculty will be returning to a shortened winter break or a deferred semester is unclear, but many are hopeful that classes will resume sometime this week.