Ontario college teachers: It’s not over yet

College faculty have voted to reject the Council's forced contract offer by 86% in a historic vote on November 16. Photo: OPSEU/Twitter

Faculty and students doubt government orders will resolve the problems that led to the longest strike in Ontario college history.

Back-to-work legislation passed on Sunday after little debate, with 18 members of provincial parliament -- 17 New Democrats and one independent -- opposing.  

The law forces more than 12,000 professors, librarians and counsellors back to work. They’ve been walking the picket lines at the province’s 24 publicly funded colleges since October 16. But they don’t have a contract, and some say their institutions don’t have clear plans about what classes will look like now.

Classes resumed on Tuesday.

The College Employer Council, which represents the administrators, and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), the union representing the faculty, have five days to agree to a mediator. If they don’t, the government will appoint one. The mediator has exclusive power to determine what will be discussed in negotiations.

Faculty wanted more full-time positions at colleges. Right now, colleges rely heavily on part-time or contract professors; at many schools, 70 per cent or more of faculty work on contracts. Faculty also wanted more power in how academic decisions are made, like setting marks or determining how students will be tested.

The colleges said the demands were too expensive.

Negotiations for a new contract must begin within 30 days of the mediator being named. A contract must be reached 90 days after the mediator is chosen.

Colleges have extended the fall semester, with classes at many schools now running until December 22. The fall semester will officially end in January. It ends in the second week of January at some. But at Toronto’s Humber College, the fall semester will end on January 23, with the winter semester starting on January 29. Humber has cancelled its winter reading week. Reading week is still scheduled at some schools. 

Faculty spent Monday scrambling to prepare for students, with some saying they were not consulted on their institution’s changes to the semester.

Frank Turco, president of the OPSEU local at Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie, said there was "still a bit of confusion" about how the rest of the semester will look. Not all faculty were consulted about the college’s plan, he said, and he’s concerned it creates "impossible tasks" of having students complete all the curriculum with less time. He was told the fall semester will end on January 17, but he doesn’t think that gives enough time to teach what was lost during the time classes were cancelled.

Faculty will only have days to submit final marks for the fall semester, and that creates a lot of anxiety for them, he said.

Lad Shaba, local union president at Northern College in Timmins, said he was also not consulted on the college’s plan for the revised semester. This is particularly frustrating because one of the reasons faculty went on strike is so they could have more input into how academic decision are made, he said.

OPSEU president Smokey Thomas said he’s happy the strike has ended, but he’s not that it happened by legislation. He called the strike a result of decades of mismanagement, noting Ontario spends less per student than any other college system in Canada.

The government created this problem and the College Employer Council. The government "could have told the council to settle it, " he said, saying the council remained "obstinate" throughout negotiations.

Thomas said he is glad the council agreed to create a task force to examine the province’s college system. He said the first report is due in May.

The government has told colleges to create a fund to help students who had increased expenses during the strike, for example for those who had to pay for childcare, or needed to travel home while they were out of class.  This money is supposed to come from what colleges saved during the strike. Students can receive up to $500. This does not affect their eligibility for Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans.

Students who withdrew because of the strike can be eligible for a full refund for the fall 2017 semester. They can also be eligible for a refund if they are unable to complete their classes because of strike-related reasons.

But some returning students are frustrated by how the strike ended.

Paula Greenberg, a Humber College student who publicly supported the strike, said she’s "disappointed" the back-to-work legislation passed. She said this shows the government is more interested in what businesses want, and not students or faculty, she said.

Nour Alideeb, the Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, said she wished the strike had ended through negotiations, even if the new contract didn’t meet all of the union’s demands.

"Even though this strike is technically over, it’s not," she said. “It just invigorated a whole group of people to get up and ask questions.”

CFS-Ontario represents students at three Ontario colleges.

The strike brought people together to critically analyze the system, she said, and it’s "not fair" that these concerns were "thrown to the side" by this legislation.

 "The most disturbing part of this being legislated back to work is that there has not been an accountability set to either the government or council to actually work towards a resolution," said Turco at Sault College.

Students suffered the most, he said. In his opinion, the financial refunds aren’t enough, he said.

Alideeb thinks the government should offer more financial aid, and is concerned students will have a hard time applying for it. They often struggle with applications for student loans under regular circumstances, she said.

Greenberg said she intends to apply for assistance, but doubts she’ll get any -- she doesn’t have a car or children, and said she didn’t incur additional costs beyond transit passes. But she thinks all students deserve some financial compensation.

Greenberg, who enrolled at Humber after working in the textile design industry, began her classes in September. She said she can’t remember what she learned earlier this school year, and hasn’t been told what will happen with her placement for the next semester.

She won’t consider quitting. "My life plan is to go back to school."

The back-to-work legislation could also raise legal questions.  

This type of legislation isn’t used as often as people may think, said chair of Brock University’s labour studies program, Larry Savage. The threat of such legislation is often enough to force both sides to come to an agreement, he said.

The law could be subject to a constitutional challenge. The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled workers have a constitutional right to strike, but it’s not an unlimited right, said Savage, who has written about the relationship between the labour movement and the Constitution.

If the law was challenged, the court might consider if both parties had a fair and reasonable opportunity to come to an agreement before the back-to-work legislation passed. Although a legal challenge would be possible, Savage said he’s not confident it would succeed, partly because the strike lasted for five weeks. 

He is confident though that whatever the deal that’s reached won’t likely fully satisfy the union or the colleges. It’s "not going to solve any of the institutional issues" that led to the strike, he said.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

Photo: OPSEU/Twitter

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