BY TAYLOR PACE
A potential strike looms at Ontario’s 24 public colleges as faculty near the end of their contract.
Professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians at colleges throughout the province, represented by the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), voted in favour of a strike mandate on Sept. 14.
Conestoga College faculty members received an email from Lana-Lee Hardacre, president of OPSEU Local 237, stating that of the 782 eligible voters at Conestoga, 60 per cent voted in favour of giving the union a strike mandate.
This included 313 partial load faculty or 40 per cent of the eligible voters.
Across the province, 68 per cent voted in favour of strike action if needed.
While bargaining has gone on for more than 10 weeks, little has been accomplished due to large discrepancies on what needs to change.
In a news release from Ontario’s colleges, Sonia Del Missier, chair of the Colleges’ Bargaining Team, said, “The parties remain far apart on key issues of salary, staffing, governance and academic delivery.”
Hardacre said, “The people on the other side will not negotiate.”
The main issues are academic freedom, collegial governance, fair treatment of contract faculty and more full-time staff.
The union has also requested a 10 per cent salary increase over three years.
However, they say money is not the issue.
“Right now we’re fighting for much more serious issues that will have a long-term impact on what the college system looks like,” Hardacre said.
Hardacre, who represents 782 faculty members at Conestoga, says these issues were raised in an effort to be proactive about the future of colleges in Ontario. “Our system is broken right now,” she said. “If we do not get a better ratio of full-time (staff), some academic freedom, and collegial governance, then this will not be a place where academics are involved in the day-to-day running.”
Conestoga College president John Tibbits disagrees.
“Some of the information the union has put out is less than accurate,” he said. “The idea that somehow this would be a better college because the faculty unilaterally could determine the curriculum just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
The college’s bargaining team has offered a 7.5 per cent salary increase over four years, with a maximum salary of $115,094, a lump sum payment as well as benefit enhancements.
“We think the offer is fair. We believe that students are coming here because they want an applied learning education where they can get jobs. Surely we want the faculty involved, but it’s much more than the faculty,” Tibbits said.
Hardacre said the number of full-time faculty has decreased from 30 per cent to 19 per cent in just three years.
Tibbits argues that at Conestoga alone, more than 107 full-time employees have been hired in the last five years.
“That’s a significant rate of hiring. And we will continue to grow and we will continue to hire,” he said, noting that faculty could never be completely full-time. “You need to bring in some specialty people from industry. They already have full-time jobs.”
However, there are two things both sides seem to agree on: they don’t want a strike and they don’t want students to worry.
“No student has ever lost their year,” Tibbits said, adding, “We’re going to do everything we can, not to have a strike.”
The protocol for how students’ time is made up after a strike varies between colleges, but both sides are confident that students will be able to complete the academic year.
Tibbits encourages students to speak up. “They should make their voices heard, and let their faculty know they’re not happy about this.”
Hardacre said, “We’re hoping this just puts some gas on negotiations and everything is resolved by the end of September. And, of course, we’re not expecting that we would get everything, but right now we’re not being offered anything by the employer.”
Del Missier said in a press release, “The colleges remain committed to achieving a negotiated settlement, which is fair to our faculty while being affordable and responsible for the colleges. But we need practical proposals from the union to be successful.”
The union is legally obligated to notify the colleges five days before they can go on strike.
In total, more than 12,000 college OPSEU members could be off the job.
The current contract expires on Sept. 30.