Thousands of faculty members at Ontario’s 26 colleges are being threatened with a lockout. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) representing the college faculty has made modest demands and even offered to make further compromises to avoid a strike or lockout. Instead of returning to negotiations, the College Employer Council (CEC) sensed the weakness of the union to fight and doubled down on their attempt to crush the workers. As the administration is preparing for a lockout, the college workers must not waste any time in preparing to fight back.
The majority of college faculty work on contract, which means they have little job security and low wages. The pandemic worsened working conditions as workloads intensified with online learning and larger class sizes. Prior to the pandemic, cuts to education funding led to severe staff shortages, leaving students with poorer-quality education. For instance, many colleges are without any librarians despite the growing number of courses where students require librarians for research and additional course counselling. Given this deterioration of working conditions, the college faculty are justifiably demanding improvements to their workloads. The main demands are for reasonable workloads, including two additional minutes to grade students’ work each week and increased job security.
Looming over the entire struggle is Bill 124. This bill was introduced by the Doug Ford Progressive Conservative government in 2017 to freeze public sector wage increases at one per cent per year for three years. Today, given inflation, Bill 124 is effectively forcing a four per cent annual wage cut for thousands of workers across the province. While OPSEU is not challenging the wage freeze, the workers’ demand for reduced workloads is still being condemned as a violation of Bill 124. The administration’s logic is that if workloads were reduced, college faculty would be doing less work for the same pay and this would essentially be equivalent to a wage increase. The government is conveniently ignoring the fact that currently college workers often work overtime with no compensation. College Employer Council mediator Brian Kelly dismissed the workload improvements as being “unattainable” and “idealistic”. This statement is especially insulting when we consider the fact that college executives have increased their average income by 92 per cent!
Weakness invites aggression
After the CEC walked away from negotiations, OPSEU made a public statement that their “proposal was not a bottom-line offer and the team remains willing to bargain”. They offered to go to voluntary binding arbitration and stated they would be willing to do what is necessary to avoid a strike. The College Employer Council responded by filing a “no-board” report which gives them legal precedence to lock out the faculty 17 days after notifying the union.
The college faculty faced a similarly vicious response from the administration during the 2017 strike. At that time, the CEC refused to negotiate with the faculty’s demands for greater job security and more say in the running of the college, which forced the workers to go on strike. The administration continued to refuse negotiation and instead demanded the union take another vote on their offer. This offer ignored all the main demands of the faculty and was rejected by a resounding 86 per cent of the union membership. A few hours after the vote, the Ontario government tabled back-to-work legislation. It became clear that the forced vote was used to waste time while the college administration secured strikebreaking support from the government. The response of the union leadership was weak to say the least. OPSEU leader Warren “Smokey” Thomas organized no serious mobilization before, during, or after the strike to stop the Ontario Liberals from forcing an unfair and undemocratic illegalization of the strike. In fact, worse than this, he shamefully agreed with Wynne regarding this attack on OPSEU workers, stating that: “If I was the premier and it was down to this particular juncture, I’d do what she’s doing.”
The college bosses learned a lesson from the 2017 struggle: when push comes to shove, the union bureaucracy will not put up a fight. Today, the OPSEU leadership’s refusal to challenge Bill 124 and openness to compromise has only emboldened the college administration. If they believe the union will ultimately bend to their pressure, the CEC can hold tight, lock out the faculty and starve out the union. The lesson the college faculty must learn from 2017 is that weakness invites aggression. The college administration has shown time and again that they are more interested in union busting than negotiations. The workers must not waste any time in preparing to mobilize.
Prepare now to strike
On Nov. 26, the OPSEU bargaining team posted an update stating that they will be conducting an online strike vote Dec. 9, 10 and 11. College faculty could be locked out as early as Dec. 13. The OPSEU leadership is justifying the need to delay the strike vote to give themselves time to “clarify and explore next steps with the CEC team”. In fact, the delay will do the very opposite of bridging negotiations. Any delay only confirms the weakness of the union to fight in the eyes of the college bosses. If they do not expect OPSEU to fight, why would they bother with negotiations? At the same time, a delay will only diffuse the anger among the faculty right now at the news of a potential lockout. It is imperative for OPSEU to organize an emergency meeting of the faculty now to discuss the next steps and take a strike vote. These preparations alone will send a message to the CEC that OPSEU is not going to give up the just demands of the faculty.
The college bosses have shown that they are willing to do anything to secure their profits and break the union, even at the expense of the education of tens of thousands of students. Waiting for the College Employer Council to come back to the negotiation table will only allow them to drag out the struggle with a lockout until the union breaks. OPSEU must learn the lesson of 2017 and not hold out for CEC to return to the bargaining table. Now is the time to prepare to go on the offensive.