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Back-To-Work Legislation Ends Ontario College Faculty Strike: Union continues fight to protect precarious workers

By Rick Telfer

Credit: Rick Teller

Credit: Rick Teller

The Ontario college faculty strike ended Nov. 19 as the Ontario Liberals’ back-to-work legislation passed final reading in the province’s legislature. Outstanding issues will be referred to binding mediation-arbitration.

The government sought to pass back-to-work legislation on Nov. 16, but was thwarted when the Legislative Assembly’s Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus declined to give the unanimous consent necessary to pass the bill.

In a statement posted on the NDP’s website the next day, House Leader Gilles Bisson said, “The NDP does not support anti-worker legislation that leaves a broken system in place — but by doing nothing for five weeks, it’s become clear that’s what [Premier] Kathleen Wynne wanted all along.”

The Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) represents the more than 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians working at Ontario’s 24 colleges. The College Employer Council (CEC) represents the colleges.

Credit: Rick Telfer

Credit: Rick Telfer

Three days before the passage of the back-to-work legislation, OPSEU reported in a Nov. 16 press release that 86 per cent of its members had voted to reject the offer made by the Council on Nov. 6. Voter turnout was high, sitting at 95 per cent.

Annette Carla Bouzi, a shop steward with OPSEU Local 415 and a legal studies professor at Algonquin College told the Leveller that the Council’s offer was “completely unreasonable.”

“The actual content of the offer was something we couldn’t accept,” she said. “It was a big step back from our relationship with our work and it was clear that there wasn’t anything in the offer that was palatable.”

OPSEU’s release further explained that the vote was forced by the Council as a one-time option allowed under the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act. The union expressed dismay at the tactic.

“Calling for this vote was a bully move by Council,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas in the release. “At a time when we were only a few steps away from getting a deal, they overplayed their hand and robbed students of two weeks of their education,” he added.

Sonia Del Missier, the Council’s bargaining team chair, issued a statement on the same day. In the statement she said, “Ontario college faculty have exercised their democratic right and by rejecting the offer have chosen to continue to strike.”

Credit: Rick Telfer

Credit: Rick Telfer

The union had been pushing for a 50:50 ratio of full-time to contract faculty, increased job security for partial-load faculty and a stronger voice for faculty in academic decision-making. The union reported that the proportion of contract faculty has grown beyond 70 per cent and partial-load faculty work on one-semester contracts.

Mona Chevalier, an OPSEU college faculty bargaining team member and counsellor at La Cité Collégiale, described the entire process as “insulting” and “unacceptable.”

“They’re just not bargaining,” she told the Leveller. “It’s always been their offer or no offer.” She added, “Where else in a public organization do you find 75 to 85 per cent of workers on precarious contracts?”

“It’s a relationship of control and they’re not letting go,” she added.

At a public panel discussion entitled “College Faculty Fight Back” held on Nov. 8 in downtown Ottawa and attended by about three-dozen people, panelists discussed the strike in terms of precarious work, austerity and workers’ rights.

The panel was organized by Solidarity Ottawa, an organization describing itself in a pamphlet as “a grassroots, democratic, membership-based, anti-capitalist organization.”

Panelists included Jack Wilson, vice-president of OPSEU Local 415 and a professor in Algonquin College’s police and public safety institute, Charlotte Kiddell, deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, and Kevin Skerrett, a coordinating committee member of Solidarity Ottawa.

According to Skerrett, the purpose of the panel discussion was “to put the struggle in a broader political context.”

Speaking to the Leveller on Nov. 18, Skerrett explained that the strike was important because it was one of the largest in some time, and because “it is directly about the rise of precarious work. Employers are finding ways of downgrading jobs with decent wages, benefits, and pensions”

With the strike being ended by back-to-work legislation, it remains to be seen what comes next both within the college system and for wider struggles against precarious work and austerity. However, the union leaders and grassroots activists are somewhat optimistic.

As Bouzi told the Leveller, “I’m anxious and I think there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered.” She added, “We don’t know how the rest of the semester is going to unfold.”

At the same time, however, she saw great value in the strike and the pickets. Bouzi estimated that she spent 100 hours on the picket lines. This time built solidarity as colleagues from all areas of the college met, talked and learned about their respective relationships with their employer.

Reflecting on the wider impact of the strike, Bouzi said, “I think we started a major dialogue on precarious work inside the college system and beyond.” She added, “I’m very proud of that.”

Pat Kennedy, president of OPSEU Local 415 at Algonquin College, told the Leveller that while he was frustrated with the behavior of the Council and the government, he was nonetheless optimistic about the coming process of binding mediation-arbitration.

“I wouldn’t say our experiences have been negative,” Kennedy said, referring to past strikes that ended in the same manner. “It has a lot to do with who’s the arbitrator but I just don’t see an arbitrator ignoring that vote,” he added, in reference to the astonishing rejection of the forced vote offer.

Kennedy also said that he was “dumbfounded” when the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, Deb Matthews, told media that the government will be reviewing the bargaining process between the Council and the union.

“These Liberals have been around for years, so Matthews is just trying to deflect that there’s something wrong with the process,” he said. “But she knew all along that management wouldn’t even discuss the issues, so where have they have been for the last 140 days?”

Kennedy also observed “a level of support from students” that he had never before seen. “We had students coming on the line and walking with us,” he said. “The number of students at our rally in Toronto was staggering.”

At the panel discussion, Charlotte Kiddell of the Canadian Federation of Students reflected such support. She stated that students and workers must remain united in the face of “top heavy privatization” and noted that the inequities of precarious work are gendered and racialized. “Your fight is our fight,” she said.

Skerrett worries, though, that the outcome of the college strike “signifies the weakness of trade union bargaining power,” and he believes that unions need to change course. “Unions are far too prone to competing with one another instead of finding more ways to build power together,” he said. “They need to combine their forces and act more politically.”

Chevalier sees hope at the grassroots level. “I’m amazed by what happened during the strike,” she said. “People have learned on the picket lines how important the issues are and most are saying we need to keep the momentum going.”

Despite struggling against a “corporate vision of education” that lacks transparency and a system “where people have no voice,” Chevalier said, “We have a voice now.”

“The battle is not over,” she added.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2017).

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