By November 21, 2017

Ontario College Lecturers

opseu4Ontario College Faculty, 5 weeks on strike, reject employers’ offer – Liberal Government brings in back to work legislation

Over 12,000 full-time professors, partial-load instructors, counsellors and librarians, from 24 colleges across the province, had been on strike for a record 33 days when, on November 17, Kathleen Wynne’s government introduced back to work legislation. This followed the overwhelming rejection by union members, organized in the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), of the most recent offer by the employer. With an impressive 95% participation, 86% of OPSEU members voted to reject the offer.

The vote on the contract offer was a forced one and a gamble by the College Employer Council (CEC) which spectacularly backfired. The Council exercised its one-time ability, under Ontario employment law, to bring a contract offer directly to union members, going over the heads of the union leadership. If members had voted yes, the strike would have ended immediately. However, the rank and file, in massive numbers, heeded the leadership’s advice to vote no. The Wynne government then moved immediately to the route of back to work legislation. To its credit, the NDP blocked the necessary unanimous requirement for speedy passing of the Bill, delaying its implementation by a few days. The outstanding issues will now be referred to binding mediation-arbitration. This is an unsatisfactory way of ending the strike for it will probably mean a horse trade of a deal whereby the arbitrator might grant a small increase in financial compensation above the last offer from the employer and little else. Back to work legislation has been used before by both Federal and Provincial governments to end strikes so it should have come as no surprise to the OPSEU leadership that the Wynne government would resort to this action. It is unfortunate that even the more militant of union leaderships are either caught off guard by this government action or are quietly relieved that they are let off the hook when the government finally goes this route. Given the context of an absence of labour militancy in  Canada over the last 25 years, it is not surprising that there was no talk of defying the legislation with all that would have entailed – union leaders being imprisoned, ordinary members fined and union assets seized. However, as the class struggle heats up, how to respond to and plan for this type of legislation is an important issue for all union activists.

So what were the issues? There were (and still are) two main ones:

Job Security

This relates to the issue of contract workers who must re-apply for their jobs each semester. Larry Hoedl, quoted in the Ottawa Citizen, said he had been teaching for 11 years in Algonquin College’s applied museum studies program. As a ‘partial-load instructor,’ he teaches for 11 hours a week in the classroom. But he estimates he spends three times that amount of time meeting and advising students and marking assignments. “I make about $20,000 a year. I’m not sure where the poverty line would be, but I can see it from where I stand … I make more money now with the strike pay than I did working.”

opseu 1Only about 28 per cent of Algonquin’s faculty are full-time. “That takes a toll on both students and instructors,” said Hoedl. “Full-time professors on the picket line are giving up a lot for people like me. This strike is about precarious work and getting a better balance in the system.” The situation was aptly described by one journalist as “a treadmill where the teachers never get closer to the fantasy of permanency”. The same journalist (Martin Regg-Cohn of the Toronto Star) wrote “College administrators exploit these lower-paid instructors to prime their balance sheets, but the endless teacher churn comes at the expense of students who don’t get the benefit of experienced professors with proper prep time.”

The CEC has argued if the schools meet the union demand to make half of all faculty full-time, it would cost more than $250 million and lead to a net loss of 3,350 contract positions. And the Ontario government, the funder of colleges, couldn’t afford $250m? Only 2 weeks ago Ontario’s Finance Minister Charles Sousa boasted that “Ontario’s economy continues to grow, with real GDP growth outpacing the average of all G7 countries in the second quarter of 2017.” Undoubtedly, it was the demands around job security that resonated most with students and the general public “The paradox of professors trying to equip students for a future job market while juggling their own precarious job situation shamed the colleges into promising to do better.” (Regg-Cohn, Toronto Star). Adding to the irony was that, at the same time as the strike was going on, the Ontario government was playing up its “progresiveness” with the introduction of Bill 148 (seen by most as the law proclaiming the new Ontario minimum wage). This Bill also requires employers to treat permanent and temporary staff equally in terms of pay and seniority.

Academic Freedom

opseu3 2Academic freedom is a concept sometimes confused with freedom of speech. It is not. And even when it is understood correctly, it often has the aura of “ivory tower” professorial rights. However, it’s been an integral aspect of teaching and learning for decades, even at secondary school level.

Historically, colleges have been designated as community hubs of “applied” learning, designed to respond to the labour needs of the modern economy while universities were perceived as providing a more “theoretical, knowledge-based education”. Colleges are seen as the providers of skills-based education. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, colleges have started offering degree programs and receiving research grants. Increasingly, college instructors hold master’s and PhD-level degrees and they want more input into the design, delivery and assessment of materials.

Decisions around academic freedom are at the whim of administrators. Toronto’s NOW magazine reported on the situation of sociology instructor Sheila Batacharya at Humber College and University of Humber-Guelph. “Academic freedom is about determining what textbook is used, how much she can rely on online tools versus in-class learning and deciding whether students have satisfactorily completed assignments. These decisions are made solely by administrators. The week before classes started in September, management called Batacharya into a meeting with other instructors. She was told the textbook she had chosen for her Introduction to Sociology class would be replaced with a version two years older, leaving her scrambling to re-work the semester. Rather than reading about the Arab Spring and Dakota pipeline protests in the newer book, students studied less current issues. She’s also concerned about administrators interfering in grading, and feels pressure to pass students even if they have not met the expectation of the course because colleges receive a benefit for retaining and graduating students within a given time frame. If student completion rates are poor, that can affect how the province funds or accredits the college. ‘If progressing students is more incentive to college administration than honouring the assessment of students, then education is in big trouble,’ she says.”

The employing body concedes that faculty should have a role in decision-making around curriculum but should work collaboratively with administrators and not ask for too much control which is what they claim the union is doing. They claim that the union’s demands cannot be granted because, in the college system, courses must meet standards determined by the province, accreditation bodies and industry partners. They argue that situations could arise where a lecturer might refuse to meet standards set by the “academic partners” or refuse to deliver the agreed upon curriculum. And this could lead to “inconsistent learning outcomes or even the loss of external accreditation.”

NOW reports that the Colleges’ position is “that academic freedom should not be part of employment contracts, but outlined in a ‘letter of understanding’ added to the collective agreement that gives instructors ‘the right to enquire about investigate, pursue and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.’ The union has called the CEC’s response weak because without language in employment contracts, administrators cannot be challenged if they violate the policy.”

Also at stake in the academic freedom debate – who makes the final call on grades? Currently, administrators have the final say on grading and whether a student will pass or fail. But many lecturers are fighting for something they feel is essential: the right to pass or fail students. It’s not the problem of knowing what to teach and what not to teach – it’s more the freedom of whether the students should actually pass or not. As one lecturer told CBC news, “when students are unhappy after they fail a simulation or other practical test, they often go to administrators to fight for their marks. In a field like health care, that can be problematic. You don’t want a nurse or a [respiratory therapist] who just passed because they had other help elsewhere and not because they were capable of doing so. You want to make sure they know their techniques and are doing things right with your family.”

Management Rights

In essence, the strike is not just about pay and job security – it’s about workers trying to make challenges to “management rights” and establish the right to use their professional judgement when it comes to the teaching and assessment of students. The same journalist, Regg-Cohn, who sympathised with teachers on the precarious work issue lambasted them on the question of academic freedom, “Trying to co-manage a college, and share management rights, is a bigger battle that doesn’t belong at the bargaining table, certainly not while a half-million students are held hostage at the altar of academic abstractions and pretensions.”  Countering that argument, the union correctly argued that “if administrators and instructors collaborate about what goes into a course, what resources are used, how a course is taught and how a student demonstrates learning, education improves. That impacts professional performance. Instructors are more fulfilled if they are engaged in the education they deliver, and if they are given a greater stake in decision-making, they should be compensated accordingly.”

The 12,000 OPSEU members have shown great determination in this strike and despite the usual attempts to brand them as endangering students’ academic future, most students have been sympathetic. The irony of their teachers fighting against their own precarious working conditions has not been lost on the students who know that it is the world of the “precariat” that awaits them when they graduate into “the real world.”