Striking Against Precarious Employment: Reflections on the Ontario College Teachers’ Walkout

Striking Against Precarious Employment: Reflections on the Ontario College Teachers’ Walkout

The five-week long strike in Ontario’s community colleges, which ended when the Ontario Liberal government passed back-to-work legislation on November 21, has finally been settled through arbitration. The Arbitrator’s report was released on December 20. Because of the important and unusual nature of this strike, both management, the College Employer Council (CEC), and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) are framing it as a victory. To understand the settlement, it makes sense to review the history.

Some 12,000 faculty members, professors, counsellors, and librarians, in both permanent and contract positions went on strike on Monday, October 16. The strike halted classes for almost 500,000 students and closed all twenty-four community colleges across the province. It was the fourth province-wide strike at Ontario colleges since 1984.

Financially, the college system is doing well: enrollments are up 20%, or twice the rate of growth of Ontario’s population as a whole, since 2007-08. Much of this growth is the result of a significant increase in international students, who pay tuition that can be three times what it is for Ontario residents. In that same period, full-time faculty numbers rose by 12%; however, administrative ranks grew by over 55%, all while the colleges earned a system-wide profit of $180 million. The CEC consistently offered pay raises near the rate of inflation, but the 2017 strike’s main issue was never wages.

The demand setting-process in OPSEU leading up to the strike was fairly broad and transparent, and as the main demands of the union emerged it became apparent this round of bargaining was about justice: reversing the trend to ever higher ratios of part-time and contract faculty; an end to contracting out of positions; a demand for equal pay for equal work; faculty involvement in college governance through the creation of an academic senate system; and greater academic freedom.

The last item, which could have come with no costs attached, proved to be one of the biggest hurdles to a negotiated deal. The CEC refused to discuss sharing any of its decision-making power and control over course content and certification, despite the obvious fact that faculty already do exert a tremendous amount of control over their labour process. (Writing outlines and determining what is taught is not part of the paid job description for College faculty, although inevitably we must do it.)

Fighting Against Precarity

But the main issue was part-time work. The Colleges are a fully unionized, public sector bargaining unit with some of the best full-time, highly-skilled jobs, which include things that are vanishing in much of the labour market, such as employer-paid extended health benefits and defined-benefit pensions. Growing inside that system, though, is a legion of underpaid and precarious academics, a highly-educated but heavily exploited group of workers. A shameful percentage of faculty in the Ontario college system are part-time and temporary, and sometimes must wait until one term is over before finding out if they will teach next term. The colleges don’t openly discuss these figures, of course, but some estimates put the percentage of precarious and part-time faculty as high as 70%.

The 2017 strike comes after a period of slow losses for OPSEU in the Colleges. Previous college faculty strikes lasted no more than three weeks, under a law that required binding arbitration after that. The 2006 strike went to arbitration this way, and we saw some improvement. However, in 2010 management’s typically bitter offer was voted on by members and accepted by narrow margins. When the union lost this vote, it avoided a strike, but it was a tactical disaster: 2012 saw an abrupt end to bargaining, an imposed settlement, no improvement to working conditions, and wages frozen for two years. College faculty fell further behind.

The 2017 walkout, however, put the issue of precarious employment front and centre, and came on the back of a historic and successful campaign by labour and community organizations for a $15 minimum wage and improved workers’ rights in Ontario. Bill 148, which was passed in the Ontario legislature in November, includes better protections for the treatment of precariously-employed workers, and improvements to vacations, sick leave, and scheduling. As one union president put it, “It is the first time that our [demands] overlap with government legislative and social initiatives.”

Making the strike about more than incremental pay hikes and benefits was a key move by OPSEU, and key to the determination and pride that marked the whole walkout. Consciously or not, this was a movement for a different kind of economy, one that pushed back against the very premises of neo-liberal governance in education, precarious work, fundamentally unfair employment practices, and stagnant incomes. It grew into a strong, determined strike out of a commitment to the very principle of greater justice and equality in our workplaces.

Contract and full-time faculty were together on picket lines, and working social media sites as a regular form of picket duty. Students found it easy to support the lines, despite the disruption and fear for their lost credits, because everyone understands the impact of precarious employment. Most of our students experience it. Low-waged jobs without benefits or security have become a drug to employers, driving down costs regardless of the effect on education, the economy, or human lives.    

Defensive Manoeuvres Against the Ongoing Ruling-Class Offensive

If the cancerous growth of neoliberal austerity can reduce these workplaces to Walmart-grade employment standards and make it part of the grinding, global assault on working-class living conditions, it is hard to talk about the outcome of the College strike of 2017, even when combined with the changing legislation in Ontario, as being a real victory. These feel more like small defensive manoeuvres on a playing field that continues to tip more steeply against us.

There were powerful moments during the strike, though. The CEC is a truly class-conscious employer, but greatly overplayed its hand in refusing to take seriously the fear and resentment against dead-end precarious work. When the employer demanded a forced vote in week three (as it can under Ontario law), it was powerfully defeated. After weeks on the picket lines and thousands of dollars in lost wages, the vote by union members to reject the employer’s offer and to continue the strike had increased from the original strike vote before the walkout of 60% to a resounding 86%, with an amazing 95% of members casting ballots.

In the end, though, only some three hours of democracy were permitted. Faculty were almost immediately legislated back to work by the government and settlement put to arbitration, and the Colleges wasted no time in cancelling holidays and ordering faculty to make up the lost weeks of classes in what would have been time for grading and preparation. The employer kept some $100 million of our wages and benefits and still got to deliver their ‘product’ – students’ diplomas and degrees. One can see why the CEC might feel it won a victory.

The arbitrator’s report has moved some things forward. There is a 7.75% salary increase over four years, which is what the CEC had already offered, and a $900 return to work lump sum payment, including $450 for part-time faculty. That buys the colleges exemption from any grievances regarding return to work policy or overtime.  Language about academic freedom vaguely ensures the right to voice opinions, but nothing in the way of input or control over course content and certification standards. And a Provincial Task Force will be set up to “examine” the issues of rising levels of part-time and precarious work, the very thing that is rotting education standards and working conditions across the province.

OPSEU has stated that the result has been “an unprecedented and historic victory for college faculty,” concluding that, “This award, from a neutral arbitrator, is a clear vindication that faculty’s vision for the college system is not only reasonable, but necessary for Ontario colleges.” Ontario college faculty are united and encouraged after a hard fight around essential issues and principles that go far beyond our own workplaces. However, in terms of clear contract language that guarantees decent full-time jobs, with job security and true academic freedom, the struggle has barely begun.

Brian Donnelly was on strike with OPSEU last fall and is a member of the Toronto New Socialists.

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