by Chris Grawey
Mohawk College paralegal student
On Monday, October 16, the 12,000 members of OPSEU’s College Academic Division – professors, instructors, librarians, and counsellors at Ontario’s 24 public colleges – hit the picket line after the College Employer Council rejected OPSEU’s final offer on October 15. OPSEU’s membership gave the bargaining committee a 68% strike mandate in September.
The final offer presented by OPSEU’s bargaining committee was a direct response to the Council’s concerns and it includes three central issues:
1. 50:50 ratio of full-time to contract faculty
2. Job security for partial-load faculty
3. Academic freedom
The three proposals would be beneficial to both faculty and to students, as improved working conditions for instructors – through enhanced job security, more full-time positions, and greater academic freedom – would lead to better learning conditions for students. Faculty are also loudly calling for lower paid contract faculty to have Equal Pay for Equal Work and that this provision be part of the Ontario government’s Bill 148, the legislation containing the $15 minimum wage and other labour reforms.
The strike will be faculty’s fourth in the Ontario college system’s fifty year history, with each previous strike lasting four weeks or less. An academic year has never been lost due to a strike.
With that being said, in the event of a prolonged strike, colleges should financially compensate students for lost class time, as many students are struggling and should not be forced to pay for cancelled classes. The colleges should not be profiting from the labour dispute.
How we got here
The labour dispute can best be understood by starting with the broad political and economic trends over the past 40 years. During this period, the economic and political elites in this country have shifted to the right on economic policy and ideology. This shift to the right entailed cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest, privatizing public assets, signing free trade deals, underfunding and gutting social programs, and attacking trade unions.
By comparison, from the 1950s until the 1980s, most jobs were premised on the standard employment relationship that consisted of full-time permanent status, good wages and benefits, mostly 9-5 hours of work, and one job for life. Over the past four decades, with the shift to the right on economic policy, many of these jobs have been lost due to technological change and the offshoring of production, while many of the jobs created are precarious ones centred in the service and retail sectors which are premised on low-wages, a lack of benefits and part-time, temporary and/or contract status where hours are unpredictable and people are forced to survive by working multiple jobs.
These policies have resulted in unprecedented levels of wealth and income inequality and record-high corporate profits. Ultimately, the rich have gotten richer at the expense of ordinary people.
Underfunding, tuition hikes, precarious jobs
Post-secondary institutions have not escaped these trends. For instance, government funding has declined substantially and there is a greater reliance on the private sector. In 1992, 77% of college funding came from the government. By 2013, funding from the government for Ontario’s colleges and universities fell below 50%.
This funding shortfall has resulted in Ontario holding the distinction of having the lowest funding per-student and the highest university tuition fees. According to 2012 data, Ontario colleges are funded at rates 21% below the national average.
From 1993 to 2013, undergraduate tuition fees at universities outpaced inflation by 572% and college tuition fees outpaced inflation by 318%. In addition, from 1993 to 2015, tuition fees tripled for undergraduate students in Ontario. Outrageous fee hikes have left students with average debt loads in the tens of thousands of dollars in a less than desirable labour market.
As students have been getting ripped off, so have our instructors. This is apparent with the explosion of precarious contract jobs. Currently, over 70% of instructors are contract faculty with no job security and benefits. Average pay for a contact faculty member with a full-time teaching load is less than $30,000.
While college enrolment has nearly doubled since 1989, full-time faculty numbers have dropped, resulting in 1,000 fewer full-time faculty to teach more than 100,000 more students.
Contract faculty are also not often paid for preparation time or for grading assignments, which means that many instructors earn around the minimum wage when factoring in these added responsibilities. From semester to semester, contract faculty must apply for work at the college, despite the fact that many have been teaching the same courses for many years. Often, they are not informed until the last minute whether they will be teaching, which means they have minimal time to prepare for the school year.
Because of this, many of our instructors are forced to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. In addition, these trends have led to the departure of many highly talented and educated instructors from the college system to seek employment opportunities elsewhere.
The union’s proposal for a 50:50 ratio of full-time to contract faculty, and job security for partial-load faculty, are a step in the right direction to alleviating the problems contract faculty must confront on a daily basis. If won, these proposals would be a great improvement for many instructors that will improve college education.
A bloated administration with corporate blinders
While working conditions have declined and students’ tuition fees have skyrocketed, there has been a significant increase in the number of administrative positions. From 2002 to 2015, administrative positions at Ontario colleges increased by more than 77%. Many of these positions are completely unrelated to actual education.
This expanding bureaucracy of college governance replicates a corporate boardroom model that has no place in an education system. Front-line college workers are largely excluded from the decision-making process, including important education decisions. Administrators and the Board of Governors are making important decisions on admissions, instructional methods, and staffing when they possess no knowledge or expertise on the matter.
OPSEU’s proposal on academic freedom would permit faculty to make academic decisions about their courses and research, rather than the out-of-touch Board of Governors whose actions on tuition fees and casualizing college jobs are in direct opposition to the interests of college workers and students. The Board of Governors’ financial decisions are about rubber-stamping the larger political agenda talked about earlier. Their decisions are not about improving the quality of the education offered to students.
Post-secondary institutions have been transformed into top-heavy bureaucracies that reflect this corporate culture. Government underfunding and the corporatization of education governance has led to CEO salaries for school presidents; Boards of Governors and Trustees that consist of elites and powerbrokers; the casualization of the college workforce; ballooning tuition fees; larger class sizes and less access to instructors; dismantling of entire programs; publicly-funded research that subsidizes corporate agendas; treating students as consumers, transforming degrees into commodities bought and sold; and the narrowing of education down to nothing more than a means to a job in a lousy employer-dominated labour market.
Who should students blame?
Many students have expressed their frustrations with the strike, as the disruption to their semester and loss of class time will impact their day to day lives and educational experience. There is no denying this fact.
However, anger directed at faculty members who are exerting their democratic rights is misguided. For many years, faculty have been raising their grievances with the Ontario government and the College Employer Council with no action from either party. During this time of inaction, more full-time positions have been lost and more contract positions have been created.
With no action from the government or from the Council, the instructors’ backs are against the wall and they have no alternative but to take strike action. These decisions are never taken lightly. Nonetheless, this is the only avenue to take to get the Council to seriously negotiate and for the faculty to improve their working conditions. To think otherwise reveals a degree of naivety to how the government and the Council function and operate.
It is clear that the government and the Council’s inaction and unwillingness to listen to the concerns of workers over the years are responsible for the labour dispute. If you were a worker with little to no job security, low compensation for work performed, and struggling to make ends meet, what would you do?
College workers and students united
Students recognize the importance of their instructors in helping them obtain a specific skill set and the required training and qualifications to pursue meaningful employment opportunities that consist of good working conditions and livable wages. The question then to be asked is: if students attend post-secondary with the intent of finding meaningful employment after graduation, then why do the vast majority of instructors who help them achieve their goals deserve less than this?
Ultimately, the faculty deserve our support, as the majority of graduates entering the labour market will confront the same employment struggles that our instructors are currently confronting – low-wages, no benefits, part-time/contract status, and high levels of stress – whether we are paralegals, tradespeople, or in the tech field.
Until we come to that realization that workers and students struggles are interconnected, the bosses will continue to divide and conquer and working people will be fighting over crumbs. The capitalists who consistently attack workers in the private sector – by union busting, introducing labour-saving technologies, by shipping jobs overseas, and by opposing and lying about a $15 minimum wage in Ontario – are the same ones who sit on Boards of Governors and Trustees and vote to raise tuition fees. They are the same lot who have been unwilling to seriously negotiate with faculty.
If workers and students want to address precarious work and growing levels of inequality, and abolish tuition fees, we must mobilize and be ready to take on the bosses and the government. History demonstrates that the capitalist class never handed anything to workers and students without sustained pressure from below.
At this point in time, students can support the striking faculty by showing up to the picket line, by forming student/worker alliances, and by writing letters to administrators and the Council to exert pressure on them to get back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair deal.