Back to Work Legislation Leaves Students and Faculty Frustrated

Provincial legislation puts an end to five-week Ontario college strike

By: Kelsey Raynard, Contributor

On November 19th, after five weeks on strike, teachers at Ontario’s colleges were provincially legislated back to work. Faculty have returned to work under the terms of the previous collective agreement, which expired last September. A new agreement will be forged through an arbitration process by both the colleges and Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU). With over 86 percent of employees voting against the last offer put forth by the College Employment Council, many union members feel arbitration was the only viable option. Rebecca Ward, president of OPSEU Local 732, told CBC: “We knew legislation could happen at any point, because it had happened in the past, but felt very strongly that even if it did occur, what an arbitrator would decide upon would be far better than what the employer was trying to impose upon us.”

Now, both students and teachers are tasked with compressing five missed weeks of class into a school year that will run into the Christmas break and extend into the second week of May.

PC: Manderz – Flickr Creative Commons

For students, this compressed workload and altered semester pose a number of problems. Dates for assignments, tests, exams, work placements and co-ops will all need to be rescheduled. In some cases, external course requirements will have to be postponed or forgone altogether. For first-year students in the aviation flight program, the strike has meant that they will lose opportunities to fly until the beginning of May. When opportunities to fly do resume, instruction may have to be outsourced as instructors will not have enough time nor enough equipment to catch-up the lost training of all the students in the remaining time.

For international students, travel plans and visa arrangements may need to be altered at the student’s expense. Also, for immigration concerns, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has reassured students that they will not face immigration sanctions due to the strike, yet many students will still have to apply for extensions and post-graduate work permits with proof that the strike has impacted their study period. Any changes to international plans and living expenses falls on the students’ shoulders.

For teachers, the road ahead is just as difficult. Teachers are now faced with the challenge of  restructuring all of their courses and ensuring that students are adequately caught up without any new return-to-work protections in place. Furthermore, teachers are also tasked with serious time constraints for ensuring that they provide their students with the fundamental knowledge they need to succeed in their programs and in their prospective workplaces. At Confederation College, over 45 grievances have been filed by full-time faculty concerning post-strike workloads. In some cases, these disputes have left professors without pay.

La Cite Collegiale has now suspended four of its professors in the Respiratory Therapy program as they were unable to guarantee that students would meet all of the program’s requirements in the allotted time and not face restrictions (citing their ethical responsibility to their regulatory body, The College of Respiratory Therapists of Ontario). In such an occupation, insufficient knowledge can mean the difference between life and death, and these professors felt that their students would not be able to learn the necessary skills in time to prepare them for their national-level exam or for their post-graduate work responsibilities.

Colleges are now offering “relief funds” for students who have been impacted by the strike. Students can apply and may be awarded up to $500 to make up for rent, lost wages, childcare, and other expenses incurred during the five-week strike. Many students and teachers feel this number is unacceptably low, while others argue that no amount could make up for the time they have lost. Conversely, students have the option of dropping out of their programs and as a result, can receive a full refund of their tuition fees. However, this option requires that students forfeit their spot in the program and risk not being able to take make-up courses or not be admitted back into their programs completely. All applications, appeals, and inquiries to student relief funds and other options for students, must be made on the students’ own time – in addition to their already increased academic workload.

According to the Toronto Star, colleges have reportedly saved $5 million as a result of the strike. With over 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians employed and over 500,000 students paying tuition provincially, many people are wondering where this money has gone.

College teachers across the province have exercised their union rights to fight for academic freedom for faculty, collegial governance, and fair working conditions for a disproportionate amount of part-time staff. Ultimately, college professors are fighting for the ability to provide their students with the best education possible. Many students leaving these colleges will be entering unionized workforces, where similar struggles will likely occur. This strike should be a demonstration to students everywhere of the collective power of unions to fight for the rights of employees against bottom-line management. Canada, and Ontario specifically, is celebrated for the high quality of education it offers. It is time that we, as students, start asking difficult questions about the challenges our teachers face in providing  education and what kind of workforce we want to enter as alumni and academics.