By DAVID JANZEN Staff Writer
On Jan. 13 Ontario college teachers, counsellors and librarians voted 57 per cent in favour of striking if a new collective agreement with the colleges couldn’t be reached.
The previous agreement came to an end in August 2009, and since then the union and the colleges haven’t negotiated a new contract. Students just returning to school, some in their final semester, are concerned and angry about a potential strike.
Stephanie Long, 18, in the New Media Web Design (NMWD) program at Niagara College, feels a strike would be "totally stupid. There’d be no classes and we don’t get our money back."
Jay Smale, 19, also a NMWD student, says he can understand some of the teachers’ concerns, but a strike would still disrupt a lot of people’s education, especially if they find themselves having to pay for class time blanketed by the strike. "A lot of students don’t come from rich families. They’re going to have problems having to repay for another year of college," he says.
In mid-November management imposed its non-negotiated terms for faculty. Legislation changed since the previous strike in 2006, and if it wished, management could have presented terms directly to faculty for a vote, without having to engage in collective bargaining with OPSEU. That didn’t happen.
Both sides met again in late November, but management wouldn’t address workload issues, nor would it move to implement the recommendations of the Workload Task Force report. The report, an independent study undertaken after the strike in 2006, aimed to assess demands and conditions college faculty are facing.
Highlighted concerns from the report include management having the unilateral right to choose evaluation methods and incorporating more effective means for students requiring out of class assistance. The report recommended "the parties consider mechanisms that will enhance collegiality, professional development, and academic freedom."
Sherri Rosen, local 242 OPSEU president at Niagara College, says, "We don’t want to be on strike. There should have been an agreement. We have always made it clear that we are willing to come to the table and bargain." Management continues to focus on salary, says Rosen, "yet we have fewer full-time teachers than we did in 1985/86."
Rosen came to Niagara College in 1983, a year before OPSEU’s first college strike, teaching Social Sciences. Strikes have taken place in 1984, 1989 and, most recently, in 2006. Despite the three weeks without classes in 2006, the academic school year wasn’t lost, nor has it ever been as a result of a strike.
"We’ve managed for 35 years to get collective agreements. There’s no reason for us to be in this position," Rosen says.
Jeff Arbus, vice chair of the college faculty negotiating team and president of OPSEU 613 Sault Ste. Marie, echoes Rosen’s sentiment. "The purpose of a strike vote is to be a voice from faculty to get management to talk in good faith," he says.
Arbus says preference should be given to full-time teachers, but the colleges have increasingly tried to avoid filling full-time positions, relying more upon part-time teachers. "Under the imposition, colleges have removed grievances for part-time workers," says Arbus.
But it’s the issue of flexibility of the faculty working within the college system that Arbus wants to address. "Universities have had academic freedom forever," he says, but quickly points out that "it doesn’t absolve anyone from any responsibility."
As it stands, faculty can suggest changes to course material and recommend different evaluation strategies, but ultimately, it’s the colleges that have the final word. "There’s been a number of evaluation methods changed solely based on financial reasons."
"It’s almost like the accountant at a hospital making surgery recommendations instead of the surgeon. We’re trying to encourage shared decision-making," says Arbus. He says the findings of the Workload Task Force report "should be implemented in their entirety. The imposition has to be lifted."
Six of the 24 colleges in Ontario voted against a strike: Algonquin in Ottawa, Conestoga in Kitchener, Fanshawe in London, Georgian in Barrie, Humber in Toronto and St. Lawrence in Kingston.