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Lessons of the Ontario college strike

By: 
Pam Johnson

November 27, 2017

Mere hours after 12,000 striking Ontario college faculty massively rejected a forced offer vote by the College Employer Council, Premier Kathleen Wynne tabled back-to-work legislation to end the strike. But this anti-worker move will not roll back the impact that this strike has had on Ontario colleges and the labour movement as a whole, especially on the issue of precarious work.

The union, OPSEU, has raised a charter challenge to Wynne’s blunt grab at workers’ rights.  Wynne gave a three-hour timeline to begin bargaining after the vote. The employer refused to remove concessions that had just been soundly defeated. But, instead of pressuring the employer to negotiate, Wynne shut down the process. Smokey Thomas, OPSEU leader, stated that ‘They trampled on the right to collective bargaining when they clearly had other choices.”

Striking against austerity and precarity

Despite the legislation, this strike, one of the largest in English Canada in many years, shows that workers will strike for better working conditions. It shows that the labour movement can fight against austerity and precarity.

The employer’s initial strategy was to paint college faculty as highly paid and greedy, in the hopes that public opinion and the students would refuse to support the strike. This strategy backfired spectacularly as students, their parents and general public were outraged that 70 per cent of college faculty are precarious workers on four month contracts with minimal to no benefits.

The strike also impacted Ontario college faculty in a huge way. Full-time and contract faculty went on strike together and forged a level of solidarity they did not have previously. In the lead up to the strike, the faculty union had worked to concretize the message to faculty members, students and community about the deteriorating situation at Ontario colleges and that the issues were a jobs crisis and the erosion of control over the classroom.

On the picket line: ideas changes in struggle

The success of this strike is clearly illustrated by the difference between the strike mandate vote supported by 68 per cent in September and the forced offer vote, rejected by 86 per cent with a 95 per cent turnout in November. It shows how members’ ideas have shifted during the course of the strike.

Five weeks of discussion and debate on the picket lines built solidarity and cohesion. The faculty had the opportunity to openly discuss their working conditions, something that is taboo and fear-inducing in the workplace. It was also the opportunity to discuss how the college system is run. There was a new recognition among many that the priorities of the colleges are at odds with the needs of students for quality education and the needs of faculty for decent working conditions.  

Engaging with the union

There was also a huge increase in the understanding of the role of the union. Many faculty were on their first strike and for the first time saw the relationship between the employer and their union.  For many, it was the first time to experience the importance of their involvement as part of the collective faculty voice.

Running a 12,000 member strike is a massive undertaking. It has been 11 years since the last strike, but the level of self-organization and number of members stepping up to the tasks of the strike was amazing.

Picket captains and picket squads formed in a few days with many contract faculty members participating. Flying squads formed to visit MPPs and participate in actions off the line. A “cyber strike unit” was formed to create a social media storm at one college. Arts squads were formed to create placards and other material for rallies and picket lines. Members organized it all and trained each other right on the lines.

When the employer announced the forced vote on their offer, locals across the province held historic mass meetings. “Stop the rat vote” committees sprang up immediately to make sure that faculty who were not picketing would be aware of what the employers’ offer contained.

Solidarity

There was excellent solidarity from the labour movement throughout the strike. Some building trades workers, postal workers and other delivery people refused to cross picket lines. Members from other unions: CUPE, OSSTF, ETO, Unifor, Steelworkers, ONA to name a few and others including the $15 and fairness campaign visited the picket lines across the province. The solidarity also coincided with the final push by $15 and fairness to win Bill 148

Solidarity messages came from across Canada, Quebec and around the world especially from university faculty associations who are facing similar issues. 

But, the most amazing support came from students. They were on picket lines and at rallies. They created petitions and started student strike newspapers. They did not need any prompting to organize. It is not lost on students that they attend college in order to get decent, secure jobs but, that the people teaching them are precarious workers.

Students understand that their teachers’ working conditions are their learning condition. And they know where the money goes; many students are demanding a tuition refund from the colleges for the weeks they have missed.

Rank and file strategy: getting to a strike  

A rank and file strategy and a clear understanding of the context that bargaining was happening in was key to getting to the point of a strike. This work began immediately following the end of the last round of bargaining. Support for the last contract was low, with 8 of 24 colleges voting against it and ratification at a very low 61 per cent.  The faculty union channelled this discontent into building momentum for the current bargaining.

It was clear that a key issue was the 70 per cent of faculty on contract. But, as is the case in many unionized workplaces, the majority of people who participate actively in the union are full-time, because part-timers can’t take the risk or don’t have the time. 

There was a sense among many full-timers that contract faculty might not be as committed, and there is some notion of entitlement—which is regularly stoked by the employer. The employer has also been building in structural barriers between full-time and contract faculty like separate office areas.  Mailrooms have colour-coded mailboxes to distinguish between full and contract faculty.

The union embarked on a multi-pronged campaign to build capacity, to educate and to bring full-time and contract faculty together.  Inspiration and ideas came from the 2012 Chicago teachers strike about how to build a real rank and file driven campaign.

It was done through discussion and debate that included as many members as possible. Educational forums that explained the corporate, neoliberal agenda of college administrations and workshops on union organizing skills were set up across the province.  Through this process new active members stepped up and, most importantly, solidarity around a common purpose was forged between the twenty-four local leaderships.

Contract Faculty Forward

Contract faculty were also inspired by the CUPE strikes at the U of T and York University by contract faculty and teaching assistants in 2015. Because those strikes were successful and garnered mainstream attention, contract faculty in the college sector got the confidence to raise the issue.

Contract Faculty Forward, an entity to advocate for contract faculty run by contract faculty was started. Contract faculty, with support from the locals, set it up a website, mentored contract faculty into leadership roles in their locals, and organized days of action involving students, faculty, and supporters to raise the profile of the precarious work.  It had an important role in helping convince the mainly full-time local stewards bodies that contract faculty issues were critical and that contract faculty would fight.

Bargaining in a new way

As the union moved into bargaining there was very much a sense that it was time to open up the bargaining process, fight concessions and try to win real gains. Inspired by the Chicago teachers, the union restructured the bargaining process to create a more democratic structure. A Bargaining Advisory Committee was created with elected members from all of the locals and mandated to include contract faculty as well.

Communications and transparency were expanded and the main demands were honed down to three key issues: more full-time faculty, job security for contract faculty and more control of academic decision-making.

This solid foundation was the springboard to give the bargaining team the confidence to be on the offensive. On day two of face-to-face bargaining, when it was clear that the employer had no intention to seriously negotiate, the union filed for conciliation. A strike mandate vote was taken at the earliest possible time, and the strike trigger was pulled at the first opportunity, when the employer continued to refuse to negotiate. 

Building workers’ confidence

The success of this strike, the rank and file content, the massive rejection of the employers offer and the broad support of the public who see this strike as a fight against precarious work, strengthens the foundation on which more strikes and campaigns can be built.

For socialists and trade union activists, the lessons of this strike, its militancy and the mood among not only the strikers but the broader sentiment that it exposed, shows that it is critical that we continue to build the resistance to austerity and precarity in our trade unions. 

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