News Local

No end yet for strike

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

Members of OPSEU Local 415 show their solidarity at the corner of Lake Street and College Way Tuesday on the third week of as strike of Ontario's college instructors. The union represents about 50 instructors at Algonquin College's Pembroke campus.

Members of OPSEU Local 415 show their solidarity at the corner of Lake Street and College Way Tuesday on the third week of as strike of Ontario's college instructors. The union represents about 50 instructors at Algonquin College's Pembroke campus.

The latest news about the Ontario college strike is there is no news.

 

Now in its third week, to date no new talks have been scheduled between the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, representing 12,000 full-time and part-time instructors, and the College Employer Council, representing the management side of the province's 24 colleges.

The strike has affected more than 300,000 students as both sides battle over the main issue: the use of part-time and contract faculty. OPSEU members feel colleges rely on it too much to the detriment of the quality of education, and want to work towards a 50-50 ratio of full- time to part-time staff, while management have argued this demand for ratios will cost $250 million, take away their flexibility to manage their campus and lead to the loss of thousands of contract positions.

Pauline Edmonds and Jeff Jackson, speaking on behalf of OPSEU Local 415, which represent around 50 instructors working at Algonquin College's Pembroke campus, said the union's bargaining team is more than ready to sit down and talk, but their employer won't budge.

“The mediator is ready to go, and we're ready to go, but the employer council is refusing to come to the table,” Edmonds said.

Jackson said the union has proposed some concessions, such as phasing in the 50/50 ratio, but the council made it clear they are not interested in meeting.

The problem is to save money on salaries and benefit costs, colleges have been leaning on part-time contract instructors to handle instruction to the student body. Jackson said in many colleges, 80 per cent of instructors are part-time and are hired for short terms such as four months a contract, after which they have to keep applying for their own job.

Edmonds said with the number of students rising, the number of full-time instructors keeps dropping. On top of that, contract faculty earn only a fraction of full-timers, but have the same workload; much of the out of class time spent marking papers or seeing students isn't even paid.

She said this plus the lack of job security and benefits leads to high turnovers of staff, which in turn destabilizes the education system.

“They have to reapply for their job every 15 weeks, with no guarantees, and can't do any long term planning,” Edmonds said.

Jackson said this all impacts on the quality of instruction, and in turn the quality of the diplomas the colleges have to offer.

Other issues being faced include the role of on-line learning, which Edmonds says has its place in increasing access to education and supporting traditional learning, but instead has been used as a way to save money on instruction.

Student support services is also an issue, as colleges have been outsourcing or cutting back on counselling services. Jackson said at the Pembroke campus, their full-time student counsellor has been replaced with a part-time one, even as the student population doubled in size from 500 to more than 1,000.

Students these days are facing pandemic levels of stress and other psychological issues, and now don't have access to help.

Edmonds said when the strike began Oct. 15, there were people who have been waiting six weeks into the semester of their intake appointments with the counsellor.

Jackson said instructors also want some say in the academic decisions which affect the courses and subjects they teach. The union has proposed to look at ways to do this, perhaps through a formal committee structure of teachers and students which would have input into the decision making which affects their education.

He said despite this inaction at the bargaining table, morale remains high among those on the picket lines. He said they are a small campus, but they really care about these issues, as evident by the solid attendance they have on the lines, from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. during the work week.

Edmonds said they have also been getting support from the students, stop by the pickets every day to chat and offer encouragement. Members of the public as well have been showing their backing for the instructors, by honking or joining them on the picket line.

SUhler@postmedia.com