The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) representing 16,000 college faculty announced they may be on strike as early as this Friday, March 18. Thousands of college employees face deteriorating working conditions, with rising precarious employment and declining wages. Since the faculty’s contract ended, the college administration has refused to negotiate, threatened a lockout and recently forced a vote on their offer. This offer ignored all the fundamental demands of the union and was rejected by the faculty. OPSEU published an open letter on Monday, March 14 calling for college presidents to choose binding arbitration to avoid a strike. However, the administration has shown that they will not listen to reason or bargain. OPSEU must immediately prepare staff to go out on strike. Preparation alone will show the college administration that the union is serious about winning the faculty’s just demands for good quality education and teaching conditions. They must prepare to strike to win.
The main demands of the union are for reasonable workloads, including two additional minutes to grade students’ work each week and increased job security. Approximately 75 per cent of faculty work on 14-week, precarious contracts with no guarantee of benefits between semesters, and little guarantee that they will be hired back. However, even these basic demands have provoked a vicious response from the administration.
The College Employer Council (CEC) has denounced the demands of the union as “completely unrealistic”. In fact, they condemned their demands as illegal according to 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 college workers across the province. OPSEU is not challenging the wage freeze, but the demands for reduced workloads, more full-time employment and benefits are 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. Meanwhile, they conveniently ignore the fact that staff consistently work overtime for no additional compensation.
The administration claims that the “past two years have been really hard for everyone”. In fact, in the last five years, Ontario colleges have made a profit of $1.6 billion. College executives have increased their average income by 92 per cent! Yet, the workers who ensure colleges function are currently facing a four per cent wage cut in real terms. The administration has demanded the faculty drop their demands for better teaching conditions and have “a realistic assessment of what is achievable and what is not”.
What is achievable or not is clearly not based on the existing resources and wealth—the resources to meet the faculty’s demands are there. Instead of college presidents making it to the Ontario Sunshine List, the wealth could be used to ensure better quality teaching conditions and free education. What is achievable is based on which side is better organized. Either the college bosses will impose their rights on the faculty, or the faculty will impose their rights on the bosses.
On top of precarious employment and effective wage cuts for years, college faculty have had to manage through the pandemic without adequate safety conditions. There are no capacity limits to the number of students in classrooms, no physical distancing requirements, no contact tracing requirements, no guaranteed time for sick days or isolation, no priority vaccination boosters, and no requirements for HEPA filtration systems. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that the faculty voted 62 per cent to reject the contract from the administration.
Weakness invites aggression
While the union leadership announced there may be strike action this week, they also made it clear that they are doing everything in their power to avoid it. In their open letter to the presidents of the colleges, the union leadership stated: “We propose immediately ending this impasse by asking a mutually-agreed arbitrator to step in as William Kaplan did in 2017, and has been done in recent strikes in the post-secondary sector. This would end the negotiations without a strike or lockout”. The OPSEU leadership are missing the key lesson of 2017. Similarly to today, the CEC refused to negotiate and ultimately dragged out the struggle until the Ontario government tabled back-to-work legislation. The college bosses learned a lesson from the 2017 struggle: when push comes to shove, the union bureaucracy will not put up a fight. If the college administration does not believe that the union will uphold the strike vote and shut down the campus, they have no reason to compromise. The lesson the college faculty must learn from 2017 is that weakness invites aggression. The current push by the OPSEU leadership for binding arbitration only makes the union appear more weak. It shows to the college bosses that the union is not willing to fight. This gives the advantage to the administration. Furthermore, in a society divided into classes, there can be no such thing as a “neutral” arbitrator. More often than not, binding arbitration favours the employer.
In response to the union’s open letter calling for negotiations, the CEC reiterated their position: “We have consistently stated since July that the remaining union demands could never be accepted. Insisting we take them to interest arbitration is a failure to respect our consistent assertion that these demands fall well outside any acceptable provision. We can never accept them”.
When the faculty contract expired in the summer of 2020, the college administration walked away from the bargaining table. At that time, OPSEU bargaining team chair JP Hornick stated: “All of faculty’s demands are extremely low- or no-cost to the employer. Due to Bill 124, we’re not bargaining compensation”. They went so far as to reassure the administration that their demands were not a “bottom-line offer” and that they were open to renegotiation. The college bosses responded to this with the threat of a lockout. This forced the union to take a strike vote where 59 per cent voted yes to strike. Hornick responded to the vote: “I hope this strike vote will be the CEC’s incentive to start negotiating for real”. The college bosses responded by imposing worse working conditions onto faculty. Then they forced the union to vote on their offer at the beginning of 2022. OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas responded to this with: “We can only go up from here. It’s time to get back to the table and bargain a deal that’s good for faculty, students and the entire public college system”. The college administration has shown that they will not bargain in good faith. In fact, every attempt by the union to compromise has only emboldened the college bosses.
Since the faculty contract ended last year, Fightback warned that the workers must not waste time, and should prepare to strike. We have to be honest: some time has been wasted. However, it is not too late. Originally, 59 per cent of faculty voted to strike. Six months later, this has increased to 62 per cent. The conditions on campus have only worsened and inflation is higher than ever before. The need to fight for better teaching and living conditions is more pressing than ever. However, the union leadership must recognize that the college bosses are more interested in union busting than negotiations! Otherwise, their attempts to compromise will not only invite aggression, but will invite demoralization among their membership. To avoid this happening, OPSEU must stop waiting at the bargaining table and instead get organized to hit the streets. The union must prepare to strike.
Strike to win
The college administration has shown that they are willing to drag out the struggle, at the expense of compromising the education of tens of thousands of students, so long as they can break the union and secure their profits.
OPSEU must show they are equally willing to fight boldly for the demands of the faculty. Strike action is not an easy solution. However, the vicious response of the college administration has left the faculty with no alternative. Preparing for mass mobilization will be the best way to shorten the strike. As the old saying in the trade union movement goes, the longer the picket, the shorter the strike.
All public sector workers face the threat of Bill 124 and the entire working class is witnessing their wages degrade until the pressure of inflation. If the college administration succeeds in their attacks on the college faculty, it will embolden bosses across Ontario to think they can do the same. The whole of the labour movement must uphold the old slogan: an injury to one is an injury to all. Organized labour must prepare for solidarity strike action and support their fellow workers on the picket lines.
It is imperative for OPSEU to organize an emergency meeting of the faculty now to discuss the next steps and organize strike action. Now is the time to prepare to go on the offensive.