THE UNION representing 12,000 striking Ontario college faculty called on Tuesday for its members to reject their employers’ latest contract offer in a ballot next week.
Talks between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents the striking workers, and the College Employer Council, representing the province’s 24 colleges, broke down on Monday, with the council asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a vote on their offer.
Ontario’s 12,000 college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians have been on strike since October 15, leaving 500,000 full-time and part-time students out of class. The union’s main point of contention has been the level of input college instructors have into the way courses are taught and evaluated.
OPSEU bargaining team chair, JP Hornick, said: ‘Who is better placed to make decisions for our classrooms? Is it the faculty that are working with our students or the administrators who may not have even taught before and don’t know the subject matter?’ The council’s ‘final offer’ is a step backward, Hornick said. ‘Their offer contains concessions that undermined everything we had negotiated and agreed to,’ Hornick said.
On Tuesday, the College Employer Council, which bargains on behalf of the 24 schools, and the OPSEU sat down with an Ontario Labour Relations Board mediator, one day after the council said it wanted to force a vote on its latest offer, bypassing union negotiators. The vote is scheduled between November 14 and 16 by electronic ballot.
OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said the two sides had been ‘very, very close’ to a deal before the council contacted the labour board. ‘Then Monday morning, without any notice to us, the government dropped the bombshell of saying they were going to ask the Ministry of Labour to conduct a vote, which they get to do once during the bargaining cycle,’ Thomas said to reporters at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto.
At Tuesday’s news conference, the union maintained it would advise members to vote no.
‘I thought we were close to a deal,’ Thomas told reporters. ‘I think their actions yesterday morning, going to the Ministry of Labour and walking away from the table, it just pulled that curtain and really accentuates one of the major problems in the college system today: that is, a management team that is stuck in a bygone era … They won’t let go of even of a little bit of that righteous control they have,’ said Thomas.
Reflection from a Full-Time College Professor on Strike, By Resh Budhu
‘This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Ontario Public College System. And as of Monday October 16th at 12:01am, 12,000 of us – full-time and partial-load faculty, librarians and counsellors from across 24 colleges – have been on strike.
‘The last time college faculty went on strike I was a part-time teacher. I wasn’t part of the union: part-time faculty are not unionised. I had no benefits or savings to cushion a work stoppage: my part-time pay didn’t extend that far. Part-time faculty are only paid for hours standing in class, not for course development, lesson prep, assignment marking, meeting and communicating with students or rounding up and inputting end-of-term grades – an amount of work, when indexed to part-time pay, hovers around the provincial minimum wage.
‘Nevertheless some of us part-timers decided not only to not cross the picket-line, but to join it. This meant risking the displeasure of our managers, which might come back to bite us when we had to re-apply to teach our courses, as contract faculty have to do every term – even for courses they’ve developed and have been teaching for years. We also knew that this could jeopardise our application for Employment Insurance, a necessity for many underpaid contract workers when colleges and universities go on summer break – because again, the money isn’t enough.
‘We were right to worry. EI did not recognise a legal strike as a legitimate reason for not completing the required mandatory minimum work period. Apparently one had to work despite the absence of work. Thankfully, a merciful counsellor understood this was inane and restored my benefit. But not everyone was so lucky.
‘A few years ago I was finally hired into a full-time teaching position. I laughed, shouted, toasted endlessly … can’t remember the rest … but it was great! Because it was the game-changer. But let me be clear … What changed was that I now had job security, I had full benefits, I had a (more than) decent salary and I no longer had to worry about where I would be teaching, who I would be teaching and if I would be teaching from one term to the next. My blood-pressure and anxiety decreased, my happiness and sense of self increased. And I said goodbye to EI.
‘What did not change was the amount of work I had to do. Only now, I got paid for it. As bad as I thought it was then, it’s far worse now. I am part of a shrinking group – Permanent full-time faculty with job security and benefits. I have the privilege of working with bright, ethical, compassionate and dedicated colleagues, a majority of whom now belong to steadily increasing numbers of contract, part-time college workers (well over 70%). All of us are trying to deliver quality education and service to growing numbers of students, even as Ontario colleges are experiencing drastic funding cuts (21% below the national average) – meaning higher tuitions for students, less secure jobs for workers and reduced resources and supports from classrooms to counselling services.
And we are surrounded and managed by a ballooning bureaucracy of administrators (growing by 77% in a little over 10 years) to ensure the delivery of decisions by largely corporate Boards of Governors whose private sector interests and modus operandi are becoming the operating practices of public post-secondary education.
‘Education is transformed from a social good into a business and our students into its consumers. As classrooms swell in student numbers and in student needs, instead of investing in additional supports, colleges have increased the workloads of already over-burdened faculty who, in addition to teaching, are now engaged in student recruitment, service and retention.
‘The colleges’ failure and unwillingness to create more job security for part-timers leads to a cascade of negative consequences for our college communities and wider communities…
‘In their latest communiqué, the College Council has now sunk to adopting the rhetoric of the union-busting “Right to Work” movement in America by suggesting that union demands for more full-time jobs means condemning over 3,000 contract workers to unemployment. After all, precarious work is better than no work at all. Apparently jobs with rights and dignity are too expensive for institutions that will only pay for a fraction of the bread and none of the roses.
‘The late UK MP Tony Benn once said that the best way to control people is to keep them demoralised, insecure and frightened and this is precisely what is happening to educational workers. Within this environment of precarity, workers are increasingly treated as unskilled and knowledge-less who belong to inexhaustible pools of exploitable and expendable labour.
Complain too much, deliver “too little” or challenge on principles of academic freedom and quality education – no worries, there are always others who will do the job for less. Within this environment, administration doesn’t manage, so much as control.
‘And while there are many managers, administrators, chairs, deans (and perhaps even college presidents) who choose to support workers and stand up for education, there are also many who don’t. And in this new reality of growing insecurity, reduced consultation and the sacrifice of educational integrity to corporate ideology, it is only the most controlling, arbitrary and authoritarian management practices that will be allowed to flourish.
‘Ultimately this may be the point. Insecure workers controlled by growing bureaucracies delivering on corporate visions for public colleges will weaken two of the most powerful tools we have to resist neoliberalism: collective bargaining and education.
‘So I’m striking: Striking so that our colleagues will not have to choose between their integrity as educators and job security. Striking to give our students a quality of education that will sustain them in their professions and in their lives. Striking to maintain the vitality of educational institutions that are so essential to our democracies. Striking for the building of sustainable and caring communities where everyone has the right to both live and work with dignity.
‘How ironic that the founding values of the college system in 1967 have now become the demands of striking college workers 50 years later.
‘See you on the line!’ Resh Budhu, Faculty George Brown College.