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College faculty strike heads into Week 5 as faculty set to vote on offer


Striking Algonquin College faculty man picket lines on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

Julie Oliver / Postmedia

As the strike by college faculty across Ontario heads into its fifth week, both sides in the bitter dispute are ramping up their campaigns to win over the union members who will vote in the next few days on a contract offer.

Even if faculty members reject advice from the union and vote “yes” students would remain out of classes until next week.

And if they vote “no” in the vote being conducted by the Ontario Labour Relations Board, the strike continues.

Students are increasingly anxious as the school year ticks away. Algonquin and La Cité colleges in Ottawa have cancelled most of the Christmas break and extended the fall term into January, causing havoc for students with travel plans or jobs.

The colleges have emphasized that no student has ever lost a semester due to a strike. But as this one stretches toward six-week territory, many students are wondering how the class time, work placements and clinical practice can be made up. The strike is now in Day 30, making it the longest in the 50-year history of the Ontario college system.

The Employer Council representing  24 colleges is lobbying hard for faculty to accept its offer. The Council held a “town hall” webcast on Monday to answer questions, then announced a new website to counter “misinformation” from the union.

“These union tactics are not fair to our faculty or the 500,000 students who are depending on the outcome of the vote,” said the council’s statement. 

The council’s decision to call for a forced vote rather than continuing to bargain was “contentious,” acknowledged Sonia Del Missier, the chief bargainer for the colleges, during the webcast.

The colleges had little choice since they had “exhausted all other options,” she said. “We need to end this strike now, and get faculty and students back in the classroom.”

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The 12,000 professors, partial-load instructors, counsellors and librarians are eligible to vote electronically on management’s latest offer between Tuesday and Thursday. If a simple majority accepts the contract, the strike is over. Professors would get paid by Friday, and students could be in class as early as Tuesday, Nov. 21, said Del Missier.

The union is urging members to vote against the offer. It contains concessions that would allow colleges to hire more part-time contract professors and does not meet the union’s request for more “academic freedom” by professors over course content, delivery and student evaluations, says the union.

“Your employer is one of the most unreasonable, bullying examples of management that I have ever witnessed,” said Smokey Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, at a town hall phone-in organized by the union on Nov. 9.

Job security for the “partial-load” instructors who teach from seven to 12 hours a week has been a major issue, along with the union’s request to increase the number of full-time professors. 

That appeared to be partly settled when both sides agreed to the creation of a provincial task force, facilitated by the ministry responsible for post-secondary education, to study staffing ratios and what funding would be needed to “support the delivery of quality education and training.” Management had said the union’s proposal of a 50-50 split between part-time and full-time professors was too expensive.

“Academic freedom” remains a key unresolved issue. The union says faculty are faced with administrators who overturn failing marks given by professors when students complain and change course content to save money. They are seeking the type of academic control enjoyed by many university professors.

The colleges say faculty have a central voice in academic decision, but other “stakeholders” must also be consulted, including industry partners. “Colleges are not universities,” said Del Messier. Colleges must meet standards set by accreditation bodies, regulatory agencies, and professional associations, says the council.

As the dispute drags on, one big question remains unanswered: If union members reject the management offer in this week’s vote, will the government step in with back-to-work legislation? 

Union president Thomas says the government could legislate faculty back, but that would be an “extraordinary move.”

“Labour rights are enshrined in the Constitution of Canada,” he told the town hall. “That’s a tool that the government kind of has at its disposal but that they would be extremely reluctant to use, because they know at the end of the day they would lose the (Charter of Rights) challenge and they would have to figure out how to settle up with 12,000 people for violating their rights.”

The Employer Council warns the strike is unlikely to end through binding arbitration.

“It’s also important to understand that binding arbitration was removed from the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act because it impedes effective bargaining.”

Previous college faculty strikes

When: 1984

Length of strike: 24 days

Issues: Workload

How it was settled: The Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation; an arbitrator was appointed to look at workloads 

When: 1989

Length of strike: 28 days

Issues: Salaries; accumulated sick leave provisions; job security

How it ended: Both sides put issues to mediation and arbitration after the government threatened back-to-work legislati 

When: 2006

Length of strike: 18 days

Issues: Workload, salaries, academic freedom, job security, benefits

How it ended: Both sides agreed to an arbitrated settlement

jmiller@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JacquieAMiller



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