Ontario’s college strike felt strongly at northern schools

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The strike feels a little harsher in Northern Ontario, and not just because picketers are already marching in sub-zero temperatures.

The ongoing strike at Ontario’s 24 publically funded colleges puts some of the most vulnerable students at greater risk, say faculty at northern Ontario colleges.

More than 12,000 faculty members hit the picket lines on October 16 after the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) and the College Employer Council failed to reach a new contract. The union representing instructors, professors, counsellors and librarians wants more academic freedom, increased job security for partial-load instructors, those who teach between six and 12 hours a week, and a commitment that colleges will hire less part-time faculty. They want colleges to have 50 per cent full-time and 50 per cent part-time faculty. Many colleges have more than 70 per cent part-time faculty.

OPSEU also wants a wage increase of 9 per cent over three years. The council is asking for an increase of 7.75 per cent over four.

The problems caused by an over-reliance on precarious, part-time work are keenly felt in northern communities, many that struggle to attract and retain skilled workers.

“If people are from the north, chances are that if they go to school in the north… they’ll stay here,” said Lad Shaba, an engineering professor at Northern College’s Timmins campus and alumnus of the school.

Colleges play a “significant” role in sustaining the local economy, and that means reaching out to students in remote communities, said Rebecca Ward who teaches in the child and youth program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay.

The strike feels a little harsher there, and not just because picketers are already marching in sub-zero temperatures.

Faculty’s fight against precarious work resonates well with the community, because many residents are fighting it, too, Ward said.

“There’s this strong belief that precarious work is on the horizon for all of our children,” said Ward, whose adult son is a heavy machine operator in the region. “Our children are losing hope in the future to be able to sustain themselves, and I think that matters to this community. Our children are suffering.”

International students and those from more remote communities are especially at risk, said Ward.

Confederation College has distinguished itself by focusing on these students, Ward said. This means instructors need to take more time to understand different languages and cultures. But most instructors at the college are part-time. Ward estimated the amount of part-time faculty at the school is double the amount of full-time faculty. Part-time faculty may work several jobs and not have lots of time to spend with students. If they do spend time with students outside of class, they likely won’t be paid for it.

Students understand why the strike is happening, Ward said, but it’s still uncomfortable for them. Many already have low incomes, and now they’re worrying about affording housing if the school year is extended. Others don’t know if they’ll find summer work. International students fear their visas may expire before they can complete classes.

Some have dropped out. Ward’s seen students cross the picket lines to return books.  Others, in programs such as carpentry, only had a week left in their studies before the strike cancelled classes, she said. Some students have returned to their home communities. Asking them to come back for just a week of classes is “going to be really difficult,” she said, especially if they’ve already found work.

Colleges in the north also demonstrate problems with how colleges are funded and how the money they receive is spent. Faculty across colleges agree that schools choose to hire part-time professors to cut costs, and decry the amount of money being spent on buildings and the fact that managers have full-time jobs when many employees don’t.

But northern schools experience these economic disparities more keenly, said Shaba at Northern.

The province’s smallest college has about 2,000 full-time students, and about 7,000 enrolled part-time or in continuing education. Student population determines funding; schools with more students get more money. There’s no surplus at Northern. Shaba said the college operates “hand-to-mouth.”

“Our problem is not the space,” he said. The college needs more students. The current funding system doesn’t work for small, rural schools, he said.

That’s especially unfortunate because the college is one of the few good job source’s in the region that doesn’t involved mining, he said. The college says 70 per cent of faculty are part-time, but Shaba suspects it’s more. These faculty members are qualified, he said. But it’s hard to recruit people if the college can’t offer job security.

The situation is direr at other schools. David Fasciano at Collège Boréal said about 86 per cent of the school’s faculty are part-time. The francophone college has campuses throughout the province, mainly in northern communities. These faculty do offer needed expertise from the job field, but there needs to be more full-time jobs, he said.

Colleges need to be leaders in providing full-time work, said Frank Turco at Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie. It’s one of the main employers in the community and a “great place to work”, he said. It doesn’t struggle as much with recruiting faculty who love working there. But dedicated staff come to him in tears because they can’t afford to keep working on contracts. As their union leader, he can’t guarantee them the situation will change.

Turco compared the situation of precarious workers to women fighting for pay equity with men. “Today, because you’re a precarious worker, you get paid less, with no job security,” he said.  “And you do more work because you have to do that and other jobs to just make ends meet.”

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

Photo: Graphic by OPSEU

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