BY RYAN BOWMAN
College students across Ontario breathed a collective sigh of relief Sept. 10, after faculty squashed the threat of a strike by voting in favour of a new two-year contract.
The deal, which will keep faculty on campus through August 2014, was supported by 89 per cent of the 4,500 Ontario Public Service Employee Union members who turned out to vote.
“I’m relieved there wasn’t a strike,” said Grace Hyslop, a public relations student at Conestoga College. “I’m in my first year and it would have been really crappy to have a strike my second week in.”
The faculty bargaining team, which had been negotiating with the College Employer Council since June, presented the new contract on Aug. 29, the same day the union’s preceding contract expired. In the following days, it recommended its 10,000 members support it.
Lana-Lee Hardacre, president of OPSEU Local 237, said she was confident before the vote the agreement would be approved.
“Faculty want to be in the classroom with their students, not on a picket line.”
It is a decision Desmond Zink, a second-year business marketing student at Conestoga, appreciates.
“The decision they made shows there’s a lot of good teachers out there,” he said. “It shows they care about the students more than themselves.”
Hardacre said she is glad to have a deal in place, but that it came at a price.
“I think this is a very big sacrifice,” she said of the agreement, “especially for faculty at their maximum step.”
One of the conditions of the contract is a two-year pay freeze for all faculty members who have reached the top of the pay grid. This will especially affect employees retiring in the near future, as their pensions are calculated based on their salary during their last five years of work.
Faculty members still moving up the ladder will continue to receive their scheduled salary increases, but not annual wage raises, which were about 1.75 per cent under the previous contract.
Conestoga College president John Tibbits said while he understood the union’s point of view, factors such as the provincial deficit and unemployment rate played a major role in the wage freezes.
“They certainly gave up what they considered a reasonable increase,” he said. “They’re not getting what they hoped to get, but in the grand scheme of things it’s all relative.
“The economy is tough right now, and not just in Ontario.”
Despite the financial stalemate, Hardacre said money was not the biggest bargaining issue.
“Students think all we want is money and that’s not true,” she said. “It’s about quality education.”
The biggest hurdle, said Hardacre, was a proposal by the province’s 24 colleges to create a new job classification of “facilitator” – a temporary, lower paying position which would push qualified professors and instructors out of the classroom.
“We want to make sure students get what they deserve, and that means having the best possible teachers in the classrooms.”
While the colleges eventually withdrew the facilitator proposal, Hardacre said there were other concessions they did not make. They rejected the union’s request to reduce the probation period for new employees from two years to one, as well as their proposal to increase wages for employees with PhDs. Faculty benefits will also remain unchanged.
Despite the two sides’ differences, Tibbits stressed the importance of a settlement for the sake of the students.
“I’m happy for the students and the institution and I respect what the faculty has done here,” said Tibbits, acknowledging that the union made compromises for the greater good of the student body.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re all here to provide a quality education for the students. It’s a lot easier to do that if we’re actually open.”
BY RYAN BOWMAN