After a hard year of unemployment and job uncertainty some people flocked to colleges that offered the promise of a new career path. But the possibility of a strike across college campuses in Ontario has some mature students comparing the situation to another layoff.
Related: Another year, another strike
“A lot of us, after getting laid off and going through all that uncertainty, looked to the education system as a place of safety,” said Don DeSchutter, 44, who is in his final year of a human resources program at Fanshawe College in London, Ont.
“People who are getting ready to get into second careers may not be able to do that now, their life is in the balance,” he added, painting the desperate situation mature students are in as whispers of “strike” emanate through college classrooms and corridors.
Students in 24 community colleges provincewide are worried about a possible strike after talks between Colleges Ontario and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 9,000 teachers, counsellors and librarians, broke down last Tuesday. The union has set a strike vote for Jan. 13.
Last year’s strike at York University by teaching assistants, contract faculty and graduate assistants, affected about 50,000 students and lasted 12 weeks. The faculty were legislated back to work by the province. In 2006, OPSEU led a strike that shut down colleges for 21 days.
A strike this time around would be especially challenging to students relying on a college program to jump-start a new career after a tough recession. Since 2008, Ontario’s Second Career program, which offers skills, training and financial support to laid off-workers, approved over 21,000 people for the program.
One of the people to take advantage of that opportunity was DeSchutter, who was laid off from a furniture warehouse job shortly after his wife had a baby. The father of four thought school would open more doors. But financially, it’s been challenging. He’s raising a family of six on $27, 000 a year while he completes his schooling, and talk of a strike has made him nervous.
“It’s a lot of stress when you have four kids, and you’re a father and you’re wondering how you’re going to provide for them and if a strike goes on you don’t know how that’s going to affect your career, your financial aid,” he said.
According to Tyler Charlebois, of the College Student Alliance, the average age of the student population in most community colleges is above 24. Charlebois said he’s been hearing from students that a strike would place an emotional toll on those who’ve returned to school after a job loss.
“They lost their job, they’re trying to support their family, they have to apply for government assistance, build up the courage to go back to school, start classes and all of a sudden you’re no longer in class because of a strike,” said Charlebois, as he described a potentially dismal situation.
If the union gets a strike mandate, job action could affect more than 500,000 students provincewide. “York university was one university. This is across the province in communities already hardest hit, you’re talking Cornwall and smaller northern communities,” he added.
Josh Rotobilsky, 25, worked in the auto industry for several years as he struggled to deal with lay-off after lay-off. A chance to go back to school was the opportunity Rotobilsky needed to transform his life, but a talk of a strike has scared the eager student.
“It’s very frustrating after being laid off all the time, and then coming to school thinking I’m going to make a career for myself, I’m going to learn here,” said Rotobilsky, who is in his first year of a woodworking program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., which has had one of the highest enrolment’s in the Second Career program. “It’s basically a layoff again,” he said, pondering a worst-case-scenario of the bleak months ahead without classes and, maybe, without money.
The union says it is fighting for academic freedom and control of workload. After months of talking failed, Colleges Ontario presented a contract that the union disagrees with. The contract offers an 8 per cent raise over four years, but the union wants 7.5 per cent over three years.
Greg Hamara, a spokesman for OPSEU blames the colleges for breaking off talks and said the likelihood that negotiations will resume before January 13 is “not great.” He added, “We’re moving ahead and mobilizing for our strike vote.” Hamara said the issue for the union is not one of “bread and butter, dollars and cents,” rather its to provide quality education for students.
Colleges Ontario has said it wants the union to come back to the table with “something reasonable.”
“This is something for faculty to be thinking about,” said Rob Savage, a spokesman for Colleges Ontario. “There is a good package in effect and there is no need for a strike.”
The Canadian Press