Why the college strike is the Liberals’ worst nightmare

ANALYSIS: Whether they legislate instructors back to work or let the strike drag on, the Liberals will pay a political price, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on November 14, 2017
people picketing
The Ontario colleges strike is now in its fifth week. (Chris Young/CP)

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The Liberals went way out of their way to ensure that their 2018 re-election bid wouldn’t be hindered by the one thing they fear most: a teachers’ strike. The government extended the collective bargaining agreements for all of the major public and Catholic school unions until well after June of next year to ensure that citizens wouldn’t have to cross picket lines to get to voting booths (which are, after all, often located in schools).

But some bullets can’t be dodged, and despite itself, the government has ended up with just the kind of situation it didn’t want — hundreds of thousands of students out of school. We’re now into week five of an Ontario colleges strike, as faculty and management at Ontario’s 24 colleges continue to battle over the reliance on part-time and contract workers and the lack of academic-freedom protections for instructors.

Faculty start voting today on whether to accept the final offer from the College Employers Council, but OPSEU (which represent the instructors) has advised teachers to reject it. Even if the instructors overrule their leadership, students couldn’t be back in class before November 21. At a minimum, the schedule for the entire year will need to be restructured to give students the required in-class time for their credits.

For now, the government isn’t talking about introducing back-to-work legislation if the faculty votes to stay on strike this week. A spokesperson for Deb Matthews (the minister handling the colleges and universities file) said, “We need to let that process continue.” Whatever the government says, though, it’s hard to imagine it letting the strike continue into next year — when students (and their more-likely-to-vote parents) will start paying attention to the provincial election campaign.

In the midst of the uncertainty and financial hardship for students, the government announced last week that colleges won’t be able to hoard their savings from the strike — whatever money they save from not having to make payroll will have to be used to compensate students in serious financial need.

It’s a perfectly defensible decision (Colleges Ontario, the province-wide umbrella group, quickly pledged to work with the government), but neither the government nor the colleges could say with any certainty on Monday how exactly it would work. It’s an expensive time of year, and if students are going to get some additional financial aid, it would be nice if they could get it quickly.

Will the government use the existing OSAP system to reimburse students? Would that even be legal, given provincial privacy legislation? How about the existing hardship funds that some colleges and students associations already maintain, and that are already equipped to identify financial need?

Matthews, in an emailed statement to TVO.org, says the government is working on it.

“I’m looking for the best ideas about how to make sure this reinvestment directly benefits students who have faced hardship,” she said. “I will work with students and colleges very quickly to develop the parameters of the fund to ensure funding reaches students as soon as possible.”

But the government hasn’t yet set a hard deadline for when money needs to start flowing to students.


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Amid the news of this week’s vote and the government’s attempt to cushion the financial impact for some students, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on faculty’s actual demands. The bargaining hasn’t foundered on demands for salaries or benefits, at least not directly. OPSEU wants colleges to cap the ratio of part-time to full-time workers, meaning more staff would be placed on a stable employment footing. The union also wants a clear commitment to academic freedom for college instructors so that they, and not the administration, would have final say over things like course design, textbook selection, and the use of online learning.

Whether OPSEU’s demands would make colleges better for students is a fair question, but it’s not a radical notion to suggest that college faculty should have job-security guarantees. It’s also reminiscent of the demands OPSEU made — successfully — in its last round of bargaining with the LCBO, when it called for the reduced use of part-time employees. The union has fought not just to guarantee wages for its members but also to win better working conditions and job security to fight against the tide of casual and precarious work.

The Liberals have spent most of the last year proclaiming their desire to ensure more reliable, less precarious work — that’s been their message about Bill 148, the first major reform to provincial labour legislation in a generation. If we take the Liberal claims seriously, then at least on this, the government and OPSEU are on the same page.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The Liberals aren’t actually at the bargaining table, and even if they were, they might not be eager to make major labour concessions that could threaten the government’s balanced budget.

But legislating instructors back to work would be politically risky: Premier Kathleen Wynne had to spend a long time repairing relations with teachers’ unions after taking over from Dalton McGuinty in 2013. Letting the strike continue, though, also has political risks for the Liberals, and no government’s patience is infinite.

Correction: There are 24 colleges in Ontario, not 26.

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