Inside OPSEU’s historic college worker organizing drive

13494916_10154486651444928_1687229590659756450_nBy David Bush

OPSEU is in the middle of organizing as many as 17,000 part-time college workers right across Ontario. Currently the Ontario labour movement organizes roughly 3,000 to 5,000 new members a year. This union drive is one the most significant and largest in the history of the province. To learn more about this organizing drive, why it is happening and how it is being organized I spoke with Tracy MacMaster, an OPSEU member and regional coordinator of the union drive.   

OPSEU is organizing part-time college support staff across Ontario. Can you tell us what these workers do and what are the main issues driving them to form a union?

Part-time college workers do dozens and dozens of different types of jobs, everything from airplane mechanics to student ambassadors. There are essentially two categories of part-time workers. Regularly employed part-time, who work 24 hours or less. Their jobs are different from full-time staff only in that they work fewer hours. They might be airplane mechanics, secretaries, student advisors, library techs or IT folks, any job that is not teaching or admin is a job they do.

This group wants a union because they have little to no protections in the workplace. They have no access to basic tenants of the ESA like vacation pay, stat holiday pay, regulated breaks, overtime, etc because they are considered “crown employees.” Although they often have long employment relationships at the college, their working conditions, especially compared to full-time unionized employees, are lousy. The library technicians I work with are example of this category of workers. They have the same diploma, from the same institution, do almost exactly the same job I do as a full-time employee, and yet they get half the pay, no benefits at all, not even vacation pay. They work on four-month contracts and so they are essentially constantly reapplying for their jobs. They stay because they like working with students, and/or they hope to land a full-time job at the college, but a union could improve things for them enormously. They know it from watching the contrasting conditions full-time workers enjoy.

The second category is student workers. This group of workers are hired mostly based on a means test – OSAP eligible, lower income students get these jobs as part of a tuition offset arrangement. They do student-type jobs – peer tutoring, student ambassadors for special events, they staff the check-in counters at the gym. This group is keen to join the union, mostly out of a sense of justice. Not having to reapply for their jobs every term, having some sense that people will be treated fairly, and paid comparatively with full-time work. The idea that they could apply for full-time jobs as internal candidates (all part-time are considered “outside”, no matter how many years they’ve worked at a college) is an especially compelling reason to join the union. Student workers have been incredibly supportive – even in colleges where the Student Federation, which is sort of student union “lite”, are ambivalent or actively against the campaign, the student workers have been for it.

How many workers are being organized? On how many campuses is this drive taking place? 

The number is a moving target, since so much of the student workforce is contingent – maybe they work 3 days or so for the first two weeks of classes, and don’t work again, or don’t return until the following semester to do it all over. But as far as we can figure, it’s about thousand and thousands of workers at the height of the academic year. The turnover of students is about 40 percent annually, but the turnover for regular part-time workers is much lower, maybe 20-25 percent.

Can you tell us a little about the effort to even get this union drive to a vote? Did it require a lot of resources? Did you encounter any employer resistance?

Considering what an enormous task it is, we started with a small team of organizers, plus as many stewards as we could get involved from the 24 full-time support staff union locals. The idea was to get the stewards moving under a local coordinator who is also a steward, with some guidance and support from regional coordinators recruited from OPSEU college support staff union activists. I’m an example of a regional coordinator, I came on board to be responsible for the four big Toronto colleges. I have plenty of experience mobilizing members for bargaining, and working on various union campaigns, so they picked me from the pool of applicants. There are 3 other regional coordinators, dispersed geographically across the province, doing the same thing in their regions.

The model was originally conceived as stewards at each of the 24 locals doing all the card signing, but we had trouble getting union time off for the local coordinators, and it’s impossible to do the job on your lunch break. It became clear pretty quickly that some experienced full-time organizers were going to have to assist besides the existing organizers on the OPSEU staff. The scale of the project is huge, and the OPSEU staff couldn’t stretch to cover it alone. We’ve been adding organizers as we go, lots of good ACORN and NDP organizers came on board, we were lucky to get them. They have been terrific, adding skills and strategy to the campaign, pushing people just a little bit out of their comfort zone when they need it, but making room for the local union activists and part-timers to act.

In a lot of ways this campaign is a numbers game, the geographic areas are vast, two 2 million square miles, in every corner of Ontario, with over 100 campuses at 24 colleges, with a moving target of thousands of members. So getting the thousands of cards required while still empowering people to act like a union has been a balancing act.

It’s hard to develop inside committees under these circumstances, so we ran events. We learned that nothing gets people to come to a meeting like free pizza and the possibility of winning a prize. One of our local coordinators, Michelle Muscatello, the VP from a college local, came up with the idea of raffle tickets – innocent looking tickets inviting “ALL SUPPORT STAFF” to a “Staff Appreciation Event”, with no mention of the union at all.

Folks on the campaign thought at first, wow, that’s crazy, that will never work, but the turnout was amazing, and the events continued to build over time. We ran events out of the local union offices when we could, which most are often right inside the college buildings, or out of student-owned spaces on campus, but when various colleges kicked us completely off the property we’d find a nearby pizza joint or another friendly space to bring everyone together. Building the events, which used raffle tickets to get people in the door, with free food, some swag as prizes and a lot of legwork distributing tickets and talking it up in the halls and public spaces in the colleges, became our most effective form of inside organizing. Getting part-time workers to contact their friends, either by text, in person or by giving them tickets to distribute was great outreach.

Most of the locals invited their members to the events and once the organizers, be it stewards or staff, got a chance to talk to them about why the campaign was important they’d bring their part-time co-workers along, or cover desks and workload so they could send part-timers to attend the event. We developed whole networks of members that would hand out tickets, talk up the campaign, bring part-time workers to events or drop-by at the union office, and many who signed as recruiters on cards. Combined with the events, reaching out to members and rank and file activists has been an amazingly effective way to get people in the same room, have an organizing conversation, sign a card and in turn get those workers to reach out to their coworkers and friends to get them involved.

How is the voting going?

The vote is going great. We’ve been in over 100 locations, with supervised votes for 24 colleges in 10 days. It’s completely crazy, some of the polls are only 30 minutes long, and they are spread from Thunder Bay to Cornwall, Windsor to Toronto and almost every small centre in between. So many communities have a satellite campus of some sort or another – Sioux Lookout has a poll, and so do Moosenee, Chatham, Niagara-on-the-Lake, even the Peterborough Airport has an aviation campus with a poll. But we’ve met with genuine excitement everywhere we’ve gone. Pulling the vote is a pleasure, and we’ve had plenty of volunteer help. Labour councils and activists from inside and outside OPSEU are excited about this vote and have been helping pull people out to the polls.

The voting wraps up on June 30th. What happens next? Do you expect any employer challenge to the vote?

We don’t know what the employer has up their sleeves. They’ve been paying very high-priced lawyers from Hicks Morely to craft carefully worded letters to part-time workers that skate along the edge of legality, and we’ve got a pile of unfair labour practices complaints in that haven’t been heard yet. I’m confident we’ve got a yes in the boxes, and unlike the last time we went down this road, there’s no indication from the labour board that the ballot boxes will be sealed. I’m optimistic that even in the face of employer challenges, we’re going to get the votes counted in a timely way, and we’re going to win.

Can you tell us why this union drive is important, not just for OPSEU, but for all of organized labour?

Part-time college workers are probably the largest pool of precariously employed public sector workers in Ontario. In many ways they are indicative of all the things wrong with 30 or 40 years of austerity – an ever-growing cheap, exploitable pool of labour as an answer to persistent underfunding, the state’s willingness to pit public institutions against each other in competition instead of encouraging cooperation, as well as putting workers up against one another to fight over the scraps that are left. A union for these workers gives them some hope for more control over their working lives and also shows that organizing precarious workers isn’t all that different from organizing any other group of workers, the tactics may differ (who’da thought we’d be running “staff appreciation” events?) but the workers want what we all want, a job they can count on, decent wages and working conditions and the sense that someone has got their backs.

The most important thing about this drive for the labour movement is for them to see that it can be done, and on a scale that most of us can only imagine. The other thing the movement should note is that 50 percent of this bargaining unit are students, the vast majority under the age of 25, and they’ve proven that they have no lack of belief in the power of collective action. When people ask what I do all day on this project, I tell them “I spend it talking to young people about how awesome having a union can be – and they agree with me.”


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  1. Pingback: OPSEU fights for student, worker rights – The Student Movement

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