What’s at stake in the Ontario College Strike

22713539_509712449390895_7314185821245327262_oBy Simon Norris*

A lot of attention has been paid to the part-time work during this round collective bargaining in the Ontario College system, and deservedly so given that 81% of teaching staff is made up of contract and part-time instructors. The hardships wrought on educational workers engaged in part-time work has been well documented. Indeed, the growing number of administrators and part-time faculty reveals a struggle over the distribution of resources that college administrators have been winning and that faculty currently seek to contest. However, increasing part-time employment as well as the demand for academic freedom also reveals a deeper conflict centered on the relationship between mental and manual labour in the workplace that will shape education in the college sector in the decades to come.

Last spring, when the survey results of what faculty wanted the union`s priorities to be for next round of collective bargaining; it was somewhat surprising to find the non-material items of college governance and academic freedom on the top of that list. It was often repeated in different quarters that all that faculty mostly cared about and should hope for were material items such as job security, wages, benefits, and pensions. However, there was a real feeling of discomfort among faculty about how decisions were being made – especially in terms of expertise related to course content, evaluations, and research. This makes sense of concerns over college governance and academic freedom. It is important to highlight, nonetheless, that both types of demands (e.g. material vs. non-material, or cost vs. non-cost demands) are fundamentally interconnected. Thus, a settlement with gains on the material front without any on the non-material one would make it hollow in the medium to long term.

Intellectual Labour vs. Manual Labour

To understand this development, it is important to revisit the division between manual labour and mental/intellectual labour that is a fundamental characteristic of the production process under capitalism. Theoretically, it is the separation between the role of knowledge (intellectual labour) and the work performed by the direct producer (manual labour) in the overall process of production.[1] More concretely, think, for example, of the work performed on an automotive assembly line; the movements and acts performed by the direct producers (ex: installing parts to assemble a car) constitutes manual labour and the design of the automotive assembly process itself (ex: the determination of where, how, and when the widget is screwed in) constitutes intellectual labour.

The ability to establish the conditions of work and the labour process of production is not benign; it is essential to the establishment of relations of domination within the workplace. It is, put simply, a source of power. The more a capitalist or manager has a monopoly over intellectual labour, the less the direct producer’s intellectual labour is required. Importantly, the less intellectual labour is required of direct producers; the more interchangeable, disposable, and finally exploitable the direct producers become.

Controlling intellectual labour

This division between intellectual vs. manual labour afflicts not only the factory floor and the fast-food assembly line, but also the college classroom. It may seem counter-intuitive that professors can lose control over the use of knowledge in the workplace given that they are essentially tasked with disseminating knowledge to students. However, to reiterate, what counts as intellectual labour is the ability to establish and control the labour process of production (e.g. the manner in which professors deliver knowledge to students). Concretely, aspects of intellectual labour in the educational process include designing academic programs, selecting course content, choosing content delivery methods, determining evaluation methods, etc.

As it relates to the college strike, it is important to note that the status of faculty and governance in the college system is different, with some exceptions, to what goes on at Ontario’s universities. Notably, within the university sector, academic freedom for faculty means freedom to pursue research in controversial topics and to publish the results, and to determine the curriculum and delivery method of teaching. Additionally, faculty along with students and administrators are able to contribute to the academic policies and institutional structures of a university. At a formal level, this essentially contributes to faculty retaining a comparatively significant amount of control over intellectual labour in the process of production in the university, which includes research and teaching.

The absence of academic freedom and formal faculty contribution to governance within the college system has enabled administrators to assert a greater control of intellectual labour. Part and parcel of this process has been the growing importance of ‘teaching and learning’ or ‘academic excellence’ centres at Ontario colleges. They are essentially tasked with researching, developing, and purchasing the latest teaching techniques, and encouraging/pressuring faculty to implement them in their classroom. Essentially, these institutions provide college administrators with access to pre-designed, pre-packaged methods of intellectual labour that are independent from faculty and their expertise. This, in turn, has rendered college administrations less dependent on faculty in the labour process of production in education and, thus, increased their overall leverage.

This control over techniques and methods of intellectual labour and the absence of academic freedom has allowed college administrations to assert greater control over what goes on in the classroom. An Ontario Public Sector Employee Union (OPSEU) report on academic freedom explains, for example, that administrators are developing courses themselves, purchasing them from publishers, changing grades, and obliging faculty to put course materials on learning management systems so as to assert control of that material in view the college’s ownership of intellectual property. It is important to keep in mind that these practices have been applied unevenly across Ontario’s different colleges and their different faculties. Nevertheless, on the aggregate, these measures have essentially buttressed the college administration’s growing domination of intellectual labour.

In view of these trends, the intellectual labour and expertise of college faculty has become progressively superfluous to the labour production process in education. This, in turn, has increasingly rendered faculty interchangeable as the act of teaching has become increasingly reduced to delivering pre-selected content via pre-determined teaching techniques. Thus, opening the way to the growing use of part-time faculty to teach courses. What is important to retain is that the absence of academic freedom has enabled and facilitated the explosion of part-time work in the Ontario college system.

22688673_1720220218022549_7297630948453386611_nIntellectual Labour and the College Strike

The preponderant use of part-time faculty has definitely impacted the quality of education in Ontario colleges – for example, they are not paid for course preparation or meeting with students. However, it has not led to the collapse of the entire system. And, if the sky has not fallen in with 81% of faculty working part-time and on contract, why should one expect it to happen if that number were to rise to 90% or even 100%? This implies that only the purposeful and collective action of both full-time and part-time faculty can reverse the trend of part-time precarious work.

In his book on workplace democracy in Canada, Donald V. Nightingdale explains that those who have won control of “work organization” are unlikely to “advocate a new system which may reward different skills and in which their roles, prerogatives, and privileges may be subject to review.”[2] It should be no surprise, therefore, that throughout this current round collective bargaining College Employer Council has balked at the mere possibility of engaging demands pertaining to college governance and academic freedom. Both demands would significantly constrain the prerogatives of administration in the college workplace.

Material concessions to faculty on wages or benefits can always be compensated through other cost-saving mechanisms such as cutting back on other areas of expenditure or, tellingly, hiring more part-time faculty. Consequently, concessions pertaining to decision-making authority, such as academic freedom, would constrain the administration’s ability to pursue compensatory mechanisms. That is what is at stake and what probably explains the intransigent attitude adopted by the Council up until this point. Power is a valuable asset and, thus, power is never given away freely.

To conclude, even if OPSEU were to obtain its demands in the area of academic freedom and part-time work, it would by no means signify the end of precarious employment nor would it represent the beginning of a new golden age of faculty control over teaching and research in the college system. One only has to look at the trends on the retrenchment of academic freedom and the increasing use of contract faculty in universities throughout the world to disabuse oneself of that notion. Nevertheless, what it would signify from a regulatory point of view is an amelioration in the conditions of struggle for a more humane and effective college system. That would be no small feat.

On a more personal note, I also just look forward to the day when I am able to write openly about topics like this one without fear of consequence on the conditions of my employment.


* Simon Norris is a faculty member in the college system, his name has been changed.
1. Poulantzas, Nicos. 2014. State, Power, Socialism. New York: Verso, p.54.
2. Nightingdale Donald.1982. Workplace Democracy: An Inquiry into Employee Participation in Canadian Work Organizations. Toronto: UTP, p. 7.

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