Bargaining breaks down between Ontario colleges and striking faculty
Dozens of Algonquin College staff have been manning the picket lines for nearly three weeks since a job action began. Today, both sides are supposed to return to the bargaining table. Pictured in front (from left) are Sheila O'Brien, Dan Labelle, Paul McGuire, Rhonda Halliday, Angela Woollam, Angela Rintoul, Diana Komejan, Barb Clarke and Pauline Edmonds. Pictured in back (from left) are Colin Boucher, Donna Cushman, Wendy Moon, Erroll Downey, Alison Jones and Adam Johns.
Talks between Ontario colleges and striking faculty dissolved Monday with both sides accusing the other of prolonging a dispute that is in its fourth week.
In the meantime, students at 24 colleges across the province including Algonquin College here in Pembroke, have no indication of when they might be back in class.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and Deb Matthews, the minister responsible for post-secondary education, had asked for both sides to get back to bargaining and reach a deal.
But four days after talks resumed, the two sides emerged sniping at each other, with no immediate resolution in sight.
The Employer Council that bargains for the colleges said it wants faculty to vote on the offer it presented Monday. It has asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to organize a vote, which could take five to 10 days.
It said in a statement that the union should suspend the strike during that time, allowing students to return to classes.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) replied that it would not “suspend” the strike, which would mean asking union members to cross their own picket lines, said J.P. Hornick, the chief bargainer.
The union said the two sides were close to a deal, and could still reach an agreement at the bargaining table.
The strike by 22,000 full-time professors, “partial-load” instructors, librarians and counsellors began Oct. 16.
The Employer Council accused the union of “stonewalling”.
“We are extremely disappointed that OPSEU would not accept an offer of settlement,” the council said in a statement. “It is a terrible outcome for students and faculty that OPSEU was unwilling to reach an agreement.”
Hornick called the management move to call a vote on the latest offer a “stunt.”
“Rather than continue to bargain, the colleges have called a vote that, in itself, could easily keep faculty and students out of their classrooms for another two weeks,” she said in a statement.
Hornick said the colleges could have chosen to ask faculty to vote on an offer at any time, avoiding a strike altogether. “It’s a ploy to suggest to people that we are somehow holding the students hostage when the reverse is true.”
The two sides were 0.25 percentage points apart on salary, and only one substantial issue — academic freedom — remained on the table, Hornick said in an interview.
Management had offered salary increases of 7.75 per cent over four years. By the end of the contract, that would bring the salary of a full-time professor to $66,555 to $115,378 a year and a partial-load instructor to $88.92 to $154.26 an hour for time spent in the classroom.
A major issue in the dispute was the union’s request to increase the number of full-time staff, and increase job security for partial-load professors who must reapply for their jobs each semester.
Management said the offer it tabled Monday included additional rights, security and pay for the partial-load instructors, who work seven to 12 hours a week.
“We addressed all faculty priorities and the offer that is available for faculty right now — on the table — should have ended this strike,” said a statement from Sonia Del Missier, the chief bargainer for the colleges.
“We need to end this strike and get students back in the classroom.”
Hornick said both sides had been working on a plan with the provincial government to create a joint task force that would move higher-cost items, such as precarious work, staffing, and governance issues, “into an arena where those items would be directly funded by government and addressed in that way.”
The issue of how much control professors should have over course content and student evaluation is a major sticking point.
Hornick says the colleges have refused to seriously discuss the “no-cost” issue.
Management maintains that increasing faculty control over academic matters could cost more, depending on what changes are adopted.
The Employer Council says its offer includes a pledge that every college will have an academic freedom policy that “recognizes that academic freedom is fundamental to the colleges’ commitment to academic excellence and will include the right to enquire about, investigate, pursue and speak freely about academic issues without fear of impairment to position or other reprisal.”
In interviews, Hornick has said the union wants academic freedom enshrined in the contract to protect professors from practices such as college administrators ordering them to raise failing grades when students complain.
Both sides say students could be back in classes immediately — if the other side agrees to their terms.
“If the colleges come to the table now and bargain a settlement that our team can recommend, we can have faculty back in the classrooms tomorrow and hold the ratification vote after,” said Hornick in a statement.
If the union suspended its strike while the vote is organized, faculty could get back to classes immediately and “not harm students with another lost week of studies,” said a statement from the College Employer Council.
The Labour Board will decide when the vote will be taken.