Taking stock of an Ontario labor battle

OPSEU member Brian Donnelly reports on the outcome of a strike and contract struggle battle fought by faculty and staff at Ontario's Community Colleges.

Public University faculty and staff strike in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Public Service Employees Union | Facebook)Public University faculty and staff strike in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Public Service Employees Union | Facebook)

A FIVE-week-long strike in Ontario's Community Colleges that was legislated back to work on November 21 has finally been settled by the release of the arbitrator's report on December 20.

Because of the important and unusual nature of this strike, both management--the College Employer Council (CEC)--and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) are framing the outcome as a victory for their side. To understand the settlement, it makes sense to review the history.

Some 12,000 faculty members, professors, counselors and librarians, in both permanent positions and contracts, full and part time, set up picket lines abruptly on Monday, October 16, after uncertainty clouded the negotiations all weekend and right into Sunday evening.

The strike halted classes for almost 500,000 students and closed all 24 public community colleges across the province. It was the fourth province-wide strike at the Colleges since 1984.

Seen as a business, the College system is doing well: enrollment is up 20 percent over the past 10 years, or twice the rate of growth of Ontario's population as a whole. Much of this growth is in numbers of foreign students, who pay tuition that can be three times what it is for Ontario residents.

In that same period, full-time faculty numbers rose by 12 percent--but administrative ranks grew by over 55 percent, all while earning a system-wide profit of $180 million. The CEC consistently offered pay raises near the rate of inflation, but the strike's main issue was never money.

The demand-setting process in OPSEU leading up to the strike was fairly broad and transparent, and as the main demands of the union emerged, it became apparent that this round of bargaining was about justice.

Issues included reversing the trend to ever higher ratios of part-time and contract faculty; an end to contracting out of positions; a demand for equal pay for equal work; faculty involvement in college governance through the creation of an academic Senate system; and greater academic freedom.

The last item, which could have come with no costs attached, proved to be one of the biggest hurdles to a negotiated deal. The CEC refused to discuss sharing any of its decision-making power and control over course content and certification.

This is despite the obvious fact that faculty already do a tremendous amount of work--through writing outlines and determining what is taught, for example--in creating their courses and therefore shaping their labor.

But the main issue was part-time work. A shameful percentage of faculty in the Ontario College system have no permanent status and sometimes must wait until one term is over before finding out if they will teach next term. The Colleges don't openly discuss these figures, of course, but some estimates put the percentage of precarious and part-time faculty as high as 70 percent.

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THE WALKOUT came on the back of a historic and growing campaign by labor and community organizations for a $15 minimum wage in Ontario. The province will see an increase in the minimum wage to $14 an hour this January, and to $15 a year from now.

And Bill 148, just passed in November, contains provisions for equal pay for equal work and improved working conditions, including better rules around overtime, vacations and sick leave, and scheduling. As one union president put it, "It is the first time that our [demands] overlap with government legislative and social initiatives."

Making the strike about more than incremental pay hikes and benefits was an important move by OPSEU, and key to the determination and pride that marked the whole walkout.

Consciously or not, strikers challenged the whole direction of the economy--pushing back against the very premises of neoliberal governance in education, precarious work, fundamentally unfair employment practices, impossible working conditions as well as stagnant incomes.

The battle grew into a strong, determined strike out of commitment to the very principle of greater justice and equality in our workplaces.

Contract and full-time faculty were together on picket lines and working social media sites as a regular form of picket duty.

Students found it easy to support the lines, despite the disruption and fear of lost credits, because everyone can see what precarious jobs mean. After all, most of our students work in them; studies suggest that in the Toronto area, over half of all jobs are temporary, part-time or otherwise precarious.

Precarious status--without benefits or security--has become a drug to employers, driving down costs regardless of the effect on education, the economy, or human lives.

OPSEU has also seen a period of slow losses in the Colleges. Previous college faculty strikes lasted no more than three weeks, under a law that required binding arbitration after that.

The 2006 strike went to arbitration this way, and we saw some improvement. However, in 2010, management's typically bitter offer was voted on by members and accepted by a narrow margin. When the union lost this vote, it avoided a strike, but it was a tactical disaster: 2012 saw an abrupt end to bargaining, an imposed settlement and conditions and wages frozen for two years. College faculty fell further behind.

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The Colleges are a fully unionized, public-sector bargaining unit with some of the best full-time, highly skilled jobs in the province. Union members have vanishing things such as employer-paid extended health benefits and defined-benefit pensions.

Growing inside that system, though, is a legion of underpaid, precarious academics, a highly educated but wildly exploited new kind of proletarian underclass.

If the cancerous growth of neoliberal austerity can reduce these workplaces to Walmart-grade employment standards and make it part of the grinding, global assault on working class living conditions, it is hard to talk about the outcome of the College strike of 2017--even when combined with the changing legislation in Ontario--as being a real victory.

These feel more like small defensive maneuvers on a playing field that continues to tip more steeply against us.

There were powerful moments during the struggle. The CEC is a truly class-conscious employer, but overplayed its hand in refusing to take seriously the fear and resentment against dead-end precarious work.

When it demanded a forced vote in week three, it was powerfully defeated. After weeks on the picket lines and thousands of dollars in lost wages, the vote to reject--and in favor of continued strike action--grew from the original 68 percent to a resounding 86 percent, with an amazing 95 percent of members casting ballots.

In the end, though, the provincial government voted to send faculty back, and the Colleges wasted no time in canceling holidays and ordering faculty to make up the lost weeks of classes in what would have been time for grading and preparation.

They kept some $100 million of our wages and benefits and still got to deliver their "product": students' diplomas and degrees. One can see why the CEC might feel that it was a clear win for them.

The arbitrator's report does spell out modest gains for the union. There is a 7.75 percent salary increase over four years, which is what the College had already offered, as well as a $900 return-to-work lump sum for full-time faculty and $450 for part-timers. That buys the Colleges exemption from any grievances regarding return to work or overtime.

Language about academic freedom vaguely ensures the right to voice opinions, but nothing in the way of input or control over course content and certification standards.

And a Provincial Task Force will be set up to "examine" the issues of rising levels of part-time and precarious work--the very thing that is rotting education standards and working conditions across the province.

OPSEU has stated that the result has been "an unprecedented and historic victory for college faculty," concluding that "this award, from a neutral arbitrator, is a clear vindication that faculty's vision for the college system is not only reasonable, but necessary for Ontario colleges."

Ontario college faculty are united and encouraged after a hard fight around essential issues and principles that go far beyond our own workplaces. But in terms of clear contract language that guarantees decent full-time jobs with security and true academic freedom, the struggle has barely begun.