On Campus

Do college students care about a strike?

Answer: it doesn't matter. At least not for the union or the colleges

Yesterday, the creator of the Facebook group “Ontario College Students Against A Strike” Graeme McNaughton had hoped hundreds of his cohorts would walk out of class in protest of a looming college strike. Instead, about 20 showed up. From the Star:

In a spectacular case of diminishing returns, a Facebook antistrike group drew 22,000 members. Then came 4,000 signatures on an online petition, and 356 students – representing 11 schools – promised to walk out of class.

At Humber College’s Lakeshore campus, however, one solitary student, Beth Corbett, turned out to carry a copy of the petition into administration and union offices.

Graeme McNaughton, founder of the antistrike Facebook group, said he had found volunteers at 11 colleges who were willing to lead student walkouts. In the end, however, turnout was meagre, and in no case exceeded 20 people.

Does this mean students are unconcerned? The Star seems to think so, writing,  “The question is if the province’s 450,000 college students care.” However, the question of whether or not students care about a looming strike misses the point entirely. Of course they care. Why wouldn’t they? The fact that they neglected to step out of class to protest a faculty work stoppage might instead signal:  a) that students preferred to stay in class, recognizing that boycotting a service they have already paid for would be ill-advised, or, b) they are sceptical of the influence such a protest would have, or c) they recognize that neither the colleges, or the union, have any economic incentive to take student concerns seriously. This final point needs to be flushed out a bit.

For example, when auto-workers go on strike, and consequently halt production, no one is ever too concerned about consumers. They can always purchase a new car from a competing company. In this situation, the car companies have very real economic incentives to settle and avoid a further loss of market share. Unions, similarly, have reason to end the picketing, as a decline in sales could mean layoffs, and, subsequently, a shrinking of their membership. (This is not to suggest that these concerns don’t arise in the public sector, but they are much more muted.)

The same cannot be said about the possibility of an Ontario wide college strike. When the College Students Alliance says “Students are not Bargaining Chips,” it is misreading circumstances. If students were bargaining chips, it would actually be in their interest. As is, there is little reason to see students as having the sort of influence over a faculty strike, as consumers do in my auto-sector example. This is not simply because students have most likely already paid for their education, or, that the government has already given colleges their operating grants. Though those are very important contributing factors.

Because faculty at all 24 community colleges are represented by the same union and college management are all represented by the same council, students have nowhere else to go. If colleges were represented individually (either on the labour or management sides, or both) students would have the option of switching schools the following year, or, at the very least, persuade friends and family to avoid their particular college. But, because the union has a monopoly on college faculty, and the college administration is also represented collectively, students are a captive market. Of course, they could attend a private college, but those are of dubious quality in Ontario. The only real alternative is to quit school.

For all of On Campus’ coverage of a the possibility of a strike, please click here