Faculty 'on strike' at Ontario colleges, workers move onto Phase 2 of work to rule campaign

Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the College Employer Council (CEC) can’t come to agreement on dozens of issues as they look to renegotiate the contract that expired in September 2021.

“We’ve been on strike since December 18th,” says OPSEU bargaining chair JP Hornick. “We’re in a work to rule which is a form of strike.”

Hornick says 16,000 professors, counsellors, instructors and librarians at all 24 colleges in Ontario have been asked to “work to the letter” of the contracts.

“So for example, coordinators who normally would be participating in orientation meetings, the week before school, or town halls with their college presidents, that got moved into the period that’s actually covered by the contract,” says Hornick.

It’s the next phase of their work-to-rule campaign, since mediation was terminated in November 2021.

Hornick says they started by putting a signature at the bottom of all emails, telling students they were in the midst of a labour dispute with their employers.

Of the members who cast a ballot in December, Hornick says they voted 59.4 per cent in favour of a strike.

“There’s no struggle over the pay and benefits at this stage, whatsoever, none,” says Hornick.

“There are external limits that are in place by Bill 124,” says Laurie Rancourt, bargaining team chair for CEC.

Bill 124 restricts public-sector employees from a wage increase.

Rancourt and Hornick agree there are dozens of issues that still need to be hammered out.

According to a mediator’s report, OPSEU started with a list of 350 proposals, which they have whittled down to 150.

CEC has 40 proposals on the table.

Hornick says their number one priority is getting improvements to evaluation time, which the current contract allows for 5.4 minutes per student, per week.

“What we had proposed, as an interim measure, was an increase of less than two minutes as well as a Workload Task Torce that would have the ability to implement those changes,” says Hornick.

Rancourt says that small change “would result in an actual increase in the cost of delivering the same amount of education, which actually would then contravene Bill 124.”

Rancourt says the CEC agrees with OPSEU that evaluation time, needs to be reassessed, as part of an overhaul of the faculty workload.

CEC wants to establish a workload committee, in the new contract, so that when it expires, along with Bill 124, (in two and a half years) they can reassess how to change the workload, and how to better fund it.

“We have agreement that that workload committee needs to exist,” says Rancourt. “Where we differ is the way the work of that committee gets implemented.”

The two sides have been meeting since July 2021, and entered mediation last fall.

But in his report, mediator Brian Keller was critical of both sides, for meeting but not actually bargaining.

“What took place,” Keller writes. “Was more of an exchange of statements and speeches without any of the give-and-take that one would normally expect to see in true collective bargaining.”

Keller terminated mediation in November saying he “sees no path” to ratify a deal, given how far apart the two sides are.

The CEC has now asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to conduct a forced vote of final offer.

The vote on the employer offer will take place virtually Feb. 15 to 17.

Hornick says they’re telling members to reject the contract.

“That offer wasn’t good enough then (in December) and we don’t expect it’s going to be good enough now, because it hasn’t shifted.”

Students at St. Clair College in Windsor and Chatham are watching the negotiations closely.

“I remember in 2017 there was a faculty strike for like five weeks,” says Shubham Sharma, president of the Student Representative Council.

Sharma says he’s confident both sides will get a deal, without going back to the picket line, noting, it’s been a difficult year for students already.

“The pandemic has been very difficult for the students, they have a lot of work to do, being in a small room, and just doing online classes, it’s very frustrating,” says Sharma.

St. Clair College will continue with online learning for another two weeks, before the campus will reopen fully, for all students Jan. 31.