As of this writing, faculty at 24 Ontario colleges — 12,000 professors, counsellors, and librarians — are in week two of a strike. Additionally (and unfortunately), some 500,000 students are caught in limbo, not knowing when their studies will resume or whether their entire academic term will become unsalvageable. How did it come to this? What are the issues? And why can’t the College Employer Council (CEC) — the “voice” of the college presidents — and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) see eye to eye?
Well, no matter what you hear, please know that the conditions that led to this work stoppage had nothing to do with pay increases: faculty are seeking only standard raises for inflation and cost of living. In fact, that’s what made the CEC’s first (and so far final) offer so puzzling: management always complain about money, but their initial contract featured very generous raises over four years, as well as multiple standalone lump-sum payments. To anyone paying attention, however, their goal was transparent — to woo faculty with short-term glitter in an effort to ignore our real, long-term concerns. And when faculty refused management’s 30 pieces of silver to focus on the issues that we really cared about, oh, how those in charge loved to crow to everyone who would listen, “We offered those guys scads of money, and it still wasn’t enough to satisfy the greedy so-and-so’s!”
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But wage increases for full-time faculty were never the issue. Instead, the problem is this: more than 70 per cent of college faculty are on contract. Now, look — I get it — work is precarious everywhere, but that doesn’t make it right. Contract faculty in the college system have no job security, but, more importantly, they are not paid for work done outside the classroom. They are not paid for marking or prep time, which is basically two-thirds of the job. In fact, sometimes part-time faculty have to get a second job to make ends meet, or quit to find more stable employment, their talents wasted and gone from the college system altogether. As I'm sure we can agree, the contract-worker virus is an all-too-common modern standard of employment: hired or fired without notice, paid peanuts, given no benefits or incentives to do well — or, if incentive is there, difficult to make the most of, because you might be working elsewhere, too.
So when OPSEU is all huff and puff about the quality of education, we’re talking about a scenario where poop rolls downhill, so to speak — about a rot from the inside. Look at these two situations: sometimes the college hires unqualified warm bodies as part-time workers (people with degrees, but maybe not the best teachers) because they are so desperate to fill faculty spots, but refuse to hire full-time professors. Other times, they do hire qualified people part time, but string them along, never hiring them full time: People with PhDs and qualifications up the wazoo (and a truckload of student debt). People who love to teach, but may not have the time or incentive to make their courses better, because (a) they don’t know if they will be teaching these courses again, or even have a job four months from now, (b) they just don’t have the time, because they are working another job, or (c) they simply can’t afford to remain teaching part time based on their income needs. Thus, paradoxically, the college drives quality faculty away — and last time I looked, quality faculty are what post-secondary institutions pride themselves on.
So in the end, the quality of education suffers, the students suffer, the faculty suffer and are demoralized, and the college system suffers. This is what we are fighting and striking against. However, the CEC did not budge an inch during any of the rounds of bargaining, refusing to confirm more full-time hires or the cessation of part-time exploitation. Faculty’s final offer (tabled two days before the strike deadline) requested a minimum 50-50 ratio of full-time to non-full-time faculty to maintain stability and improve educational delivery for students. On the other hand, management’s final offer did not change from their first one, tabled months previous: Here’s a bunch of money (for full-time faculty). Take it and shut up.
So much for negotiation.
However, there’s more at play here. You see, as of this writing, Bill 148: The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act has cleared its second reading in the Ontario Legislative Assembly. It will most likely become law very soon — possibly even by late fall. The bill mandates that part-time employees shall not be paid less than their full-time equivalents provided that they are doing the same work. Sure there are some exceptions and legal mumbo-jumbo based on salary grids and whatnot, but the gist of the bill is same pay for same work — and labour rights advocates (not to mention a load of exploited part-time labourers) are rightfully ecstatic over its impending introduction. But, you see, there’s a catch: workers who are already locked into a collective agreement are exempt from the bill until the end of such agreement or 2020, whichever comes first.
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Regarding the CEC’s hardline position at the bargaining table: their motives are logical fiscally, but certainly deplorable ethically. Rather than doing the right thing and negotiating in good faith with faculty — a type of “Well, it was fun while it lasted, but I guess we can’t run roughshod over these poor slobs anymore” — they stonewalled us. They want to milk the system for as long as they possibly can, and student learning be damned. Additionally, the colleges wouldn’t even agree to “no cost” requests that would allow faculty to have more say in their course design and delivery: right now, faculty have zero control over academic decision making. In fact, Article 6 of our current collective agreement explicitly gives “exclusive” control over all decision making, academic and otherwise, to management. Given that managers may or may not have specific expertise in all of the academic areas they manage, and given that faculty do have such expertise, it's only fair that professors should have some rights in this regard, no?
Many years ago, I was a contract employee at Fanshawe College. Heck, I even walked the picket line in 2006 and made more money on strike pay (which is generous, but certainly not sustainable) than I did as a part-time worker, which should tell you something right there. My situation has improved dramatically, and every day I am grateful for it, but for many, many others, working in the Ontario college system is a precarious grind of low pay, high work, and constant instability, with no promise of permanent employment in sight. Believe me, nobody wants to walk in circles for four hours a day holding a sign and delaying traffic while enduring derisive catcalls from annoyed pedestrians and motorists alike. But this strike will end only when management meets faculty halfway regarding full-time hires, and so far, they have been unyielding and uncompromising. OPSEU is not so patiently waiting for the call to resume negotiations; the College Employee Council, however, remains silent, preferring to keep both students and professors in limbo. Why?
Our society is rather ambivalent when it comes to educators: everyone loves “their” teacher, but hates teachers. It makes being an educator both a rewarding and a discouraging job. When teachers go on strike, the backlash is usually immediate and vicious: no one wants to hear people who make north of $50,000 dollars a year and get two months’ paid vacation whine and complain about their job conditions. But this strike is different. This strike is necessary and justified. Quality education has ramifications that extend far beyond the classroom, and this strike is about an eroding employee base whose expertise is being devalued: our students — future employees and productive members of society — deserve better.
Please consider these justifications for the current work stoppage before you or someone you love calls me a lazy piece of shit, or tells me I’ve never worked a hard day in my life, or asks, “How much money are you after this time?” I love being a teacher, and good teachers are worth their weight in gold: they inspire, motivate, and nurture. We remember great teachers for the rest of our lives (and unfortunately, the same holds true for the bad ones, which tells you something about their importance). Before I was hired at Fanshawe, I worked full time at Toyota in Cambridge, Ont., but in my life before Fanshawe, I made utility trailers for $9 an hour, bank machines for $10, and those cute little plastic racing-car shopping carts for $12. I know what quality teaching is, and I know what a hard day’s work is. And believe it or not, they are not mutually exclusive: quality teaching can be a hard day’s work, and often is.
Robert Muhlbock is a full-time professor at Fanshawe College. He teaches literature, writing, and communication in the School of Language and Liberal Studies, and video game design in the School of Contemporary Media.