The semester is officially under threat for Ontario college students, as faculty voted 57 per cent in favour of a strike mandate on Wednesday, although both sides have indicated a willingness to return to negotiations. If faculty go on strike, it would be the second time since 2006, when there was a 21 day work stoppage.
Greg Hamara, media spokesman for the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), says that a strike mandate does not necessarily mean faculty will go on strike. “What it does, is give the bargaining team the authority to call for strike action if negotiations fail to reach a fair settlement,” he said, adding that the union would be looking to strike “no earlier than the middle of February.”
OPSEU represents 9,000 college teachers, counselors and librarians at all of Ontario’s 24 community colleges.
Rachel Donovan, chair of the bargaining team for the College Compensation and Appointments Council, agrees that the strike vote does not have to lead to a work stoppage. “We will be asking OPSEU to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible,” she said.
Talks initially broke down in November after the colleges unilaterally imposed terms and conditions of employment, a power the colleges were granted by the province in a 2008 redrafting of the Collective Bargaining Act. OPSEU has said that imposing terms of employment is “union busting.” Donovan counters that “because talks weren’t going anywhere, we would give them our best offer.”
The union is seeking a 2.5 per cent pay increase in each year of a three-year contract while the colleges are offering 1.75 per cent in each of the first two years and two per cent in the last two years of a four-year deal.
Another point of contention is that both sides argue that the other is refusing to adhere to the Joint Workload Taskforce Report. The more than 500 page document made recommendations regarding flexibility in workload, evaluation of faculty, out of class assistance for students, and professional standards and relationships. Both sides agreed to the terms in March 2009.
“There were four recommendations in that [report] and the colleges have addressed all four recommendations in their terms and conditions,” says Donovan.
Not so, says Hamara. “What we would like to see are those recommendations in this collective agreement, and we believe that management has reneged on what just a few short months ago . . . they had agreed to.”
The colleges say that the union’s salary demands as well as demands to shorten faculty teaching load by two hours per week would cost an extra $218 million, and would necessitate the hiring of 1,100 extra teachers.
Hamara says that management has “exaggerated wildly” the cost of their proposal. “We don’t buy the figures that they are using,” he said. “We find them misleading.”
Both sides also fail to see eye to eye on academic freedom. Whereas the union wants faculty to gain control over course content and research similar to the protection afforded university professors, the colleges say that is an issue best dealt with within individual colleges.
Approximately 43 per cent of faculty voted against giving the union a strike mandate. In fact, the majority of faculty at six colleges voted “No.” The union has not released voting numbers on a college by college basis. Provincial legislation provides a caveat that colleges, where faculty reject a strike mandate, can continue to operate in the event the union elects to strike. No word yet on whether such a stipulation will be put into practice.
Tyler Charlebois, director of advocacy for the College Students Alliance, says his group is urging both sides to return to negotiations. “We hope that both sides are able to reach an agreement fairly and quickly . . . and that their goal is protecting the academic semester,” he says.
Charlebois did express concern over the union waiting until mid-February before deciding whether to strike. “Student’s can’t wait that long, and getting so close to the middle of the semester . . . and then pulling the rug out from underneath students and saying, well, we’re going on strike, isn’t good enough.”
Asked if the CSA would be officially taking sides in the dispute, he restated the CSA’s commitment to encourage both the union and management to return to the table. “We always take a position, and that position we will always take is the position of the students.”
Turnout for the strike vote was nearly 75 per cent. If negotiations break down again, as many as 500,000 students would be affected.
With files from Canadian Press
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