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Ontario college faculty: organizing and bargaining hard

Pam Johnson

September 27, 2017

Faculty in Ontario’s 24 colleges reach two critical junctures in the coming week that will impact faculty jobs and student education. Unionized faculty come to the end of their collective agreement on September 30, with a strike mandate in hand. Non-unionized contract faculty will begin voting on whether they will form a union on October 2.

Faculty, who are members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), have voted by a two-thirds majority for a strike mandate to push hard at the bargaining table for better working conditions for precarious faculty and for more control over academic decisions. They could be striking by the middle of October.

Austerity for workers and students

All faculty have seen the control over academic decision making that effects the quality of education be eroded as a new generation of neoliberal-minded administrators looks for “efficiencies” and new revenue streams.

Contract faculty, both unionized and non-unionized, make up 70 per cent of all faculty in the colleges. They have 4-month contracts, few or no benefits, and are often hired at the last minute to teach. The percentage of contract faculty has risen dramatically in the past ten years, in the same period that student enrolment has increased and tuition has skyrocketed. “Our students are told that they need post-secondary education to get a good job, but the irony is that the person teaching them is barely make a living”, said a George Brown College contract faculty.

Non-unionized faculty, who have an hourly wage that is half that of unionized faculty and no benefits, is the fastest growing job category. The colleges have been exploiting this category—which was only meant to be a temporary or transitional position.  Beginning October 2, these faculty members will have the opportunity to vote to join the union.   

Bill 148

The exploitation of contract faculty has been possible, in part, because currently college workers are not included in the Employment Standards Act that regulates workplaces. This will change if the Ontario Liberals labour reform proposal, Bill 148, becomes law.

Bill 148 also calls for “equal pay for equal work.” All faculty, full-time and contract, teach the same courses and must have the same requirements, but have vastly different working conditions. “Bill 148 is far from perfect , but it has utterly changed the context of our negotiations with respect to contract faculty”, says JP Hornick, chair of the faculty bargaining team. The faculty union is lobbying the Ontario government to pass Bill 148 and asking all faculty to contact their MPP to urge that this bill be passed. 

Building momentum

The faculty union has been working to get the messages to faculty members, students and community about the deteriorating situation at Ontario colleges for the past three years. 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 union channelled this discontent into building momentum for the current bargaining.

The union has organized educational forums, provided well-researched information for members and actively involved all 24 college locals in capacity building to strengthen organizing skills of members. Contract faculty have taken their own initiative and created Contract Faculty Forward (CFF) to fight against precarious work. CFF has organized days of action involving students, faculty and supporters to raise the profile of the issue.

The organizing and mobilizing work has paid off as a majority of faculty have shown their support by voting for a strike mandate to keep the pressure of colleges and a new layer of contract faculty have become actively involved.

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