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Ontario College Faculty Strike Wages On: OPSEU and Employer Council at Loggerheads

by Andy Crosby

Photo: J.C. Albers

Photo: J.C. Albers

A picket line was established in the early hours of Oct. 16 at the entrance to the Algonquin College campus as more than 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians working at 24 Ontario colleges went on strike.

On the picket line, Annette Carla Bouzi, shop steward with Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) local 415 and Legal Studies professor at Algonquin College, explained to the Leveller that their Collective Agreement had expired on Sept. 30 and that bargaining had been underway for over 100 days.

“We gave strike notice and even delivered a final offer over the weekend and that was also rejected last night,” she said. “So as a result of that we find ourselves on the picket line.”

The College Employer Council, which represents the 24 Ontario colleges, issued a press release on Oct. 15 claiming that OPSEU had rejected the Council’s final offer and called the union’s demands “unaffordable.”

“This strike is completely unnecessary and unfair to hundreds of thousands of students,” said Cambrian College’s Sonia Del Missier on behalf of the Council in the release. “We should have had a deal based on our final offer [which] is comparable to, or better than, recent public-sector settlements… negotiated by OPSEU.”

In OPSEU’s press release of the same date, the chair of the union bargaining team JP Hornick, claimed that the College Employer Council was committed to a “Walmart model of education” that exploited underpaid contract workers and reduced the role of full-time faculty.

“On October 14, we presented Council with a streamlined offer that represented what faculty  consider to be the bare minimum we need to ensure quality education for students and treat contract faculty fairly,” said Hornick in the statement. “We carefully crafted a proposal that responded to Council’s concerns about costs in a fair and reasonable way.”

A flyer distributed at the picket highlighted four main bargaining issues the union is committed to for ensuring quality education. These are: better job security for contract faculty including equal pay for equal work, a minimum 50:50 ratio of full-time to part-time faculty, enhanced decision-making power for faculty and students through the creation of academic senates, and increased academic freedom.

“The issues are just not being discussed at the table,” said Bouzi. “There is not even a conversation about these issues and they are saying no, no, no to everything.”

For Jack Wilson, a faculty member in the Police and Public Safety Institute and first Vice-President of OPSEU local 415, the Council has been very difficult to negotiate with.

“It is really mystifying why they are being so intransigent, unbelievably intransigent,” he told the Leveller. “To not address a single one (of the issues), to not even try to find common ground, is really insulting to people who have been willing to take a financial hit, to say ‘no, this system is broken and it needs to be fixed’.”

For Bouzi, the primary issue is precarious work. She herself worked two years part-time at Algonquin College.

“Had I not earned the full-time position that I hold now I would not be teaching at the college,” she said. “The precarious nature of the work was not something that my family and I could support.”

“I have three children and not knowing from semester to semester if I was going to get another contract — that level of insecurity was just not something that we could afford,” she added.

Bouzi explained that the current ratio of part-time to full-time faculty was 81 to 19 per cent.

“[Only] 19 per cent of us are full-time faculty members,” she said. “The college is surviving on the backs of these precarious workers who aren’t paid for their non-teaching time [and] who aren’t paid for their marking.”

Sixty construction workers walked off the work site at Algonquin College on Monday morning to show their support for striking faculty, according to OPSEU strike publication On the Line.

In addition, Wilson believes that the majority of students support the strike. “They prefer that we not be on strike, but they understand that the action is necessary to accomplish anything.”

Graphic Design student J.C. Albers joined the picket on Oct. 18 in support of the strike, believing that the current contract conditions are negatively affecting her as a student and the changes put forward by the union would improve her education and success in the long run.

“To deliver a successful program of education, professors need to have the academic freedom to direct their course of study, reliable and dedicated faculty to teach the materials, and sufficient counseling services and mental health resources to support the students,” she told the Leveller. “I believe that if those three things can be achieved then student success both in school and beyond in the workplace will increase substantially.”

Elsewhere, students are claiming neutrality but are demanding compensation for lost school days. A petition was created and circulated even before the strike commenced that called for the colleges to reimburse the 235,000 full-time and over 300,000 part-time Ontario students for time lost in the event of a work stoppage — $30 per day for full-time students and $20 per day for part-time students.

The petition states, “Students suffer the most, yet we are not part of the conversation. We lose learning. We lose time. We demand a refund.”

The petition further states that “if the two bargaining teams do not consider our educational and employment prospects as motive enough to reach an agreement, then perhaps a justifiable hit to the colleges’ bottom line will.”

At the time of press, the petition had garnered almost 100,000 signatures as the strike reached its eighth day.

Negotiations have stalled.

“I am not aware of any scheduled talks,” said Wilson, “but I am aware that the pressure is building on the government.”

Wilson admitted that being legislated back to work was a real possibility, which happened in two of the last three strikes in 1984, 1989 and 2006.

“If we were legislated back to work under the old contract or under conditions imposed by the Council, that then would lead to a very upset, very angry, and very demoralized workforce.”

Wilson’s preference would be for the government to sit down with the College Employer Council and say, “look, what is being proposed here is fair, reasonable and is a win, win, win situation.”

However, if there was an arbitrator appointed that could push forward any one of the core issues, that could also be a positive, said Wilson. During the 1984 strike where burgeoning workloads was the main issue, an arbitrator ruled that the work week could not exceed 44 hours.

“It ultimately comes down to the government investing, like they are in infrastructure in the billions,” said Wilson. “They should be investing in post-secondary education, because we are a major driver of the economy.”

With no end in sight, the polarizing strike has pitted quality education on the one side, and the colleges’ bottom lines on the other. “Quality education” is not merely a slogan. It represents a strong stand against the neoliberal trajectory of flexible and precarious labour favoured by the College Employer Council, according to Wilson.

Implementing “no cost items” such as academic freedom and collegial governance, would give instructors a meaningful say in the administration of the university and their own work.

Many on the picket line may enjoy job security, but recognize that so many of their colleagues do not, and that their students suffer as a result. This does not mean that all part-time teachers are unhappy with their current situation, but it speaks to larger systemic issues and social processes in the realm of teaching, education and learning.

Quality education is not only about fairness, it is about democratizing campuses and pushing back against the powerful (and very well-paid) administrators who control the decision-making structures of educational institutions.

As Bouzi said, “We are the experts in our field, let us decide.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2017).

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