The Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation Sunday afternoon, which will see the end of the strike action by Ontario Public Sector Employees Union faculty across Ontario. The strike, which began October 16, involved nearly 12,000 teaching faculty across the province on the picket line over issues such as academic freedom for instructors and an end to precarious employment. In response to the effects of the strike, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal Party introduced a six-page bill last Friday to end the strike, get the teachers back to work, and send both OPSEU and the College Employer Council to binding arbitration.
The bill was blocked last week by the Ontario New Democratic Party, who argued that faculty should be able to come to a deal on their own terms with the Council. On Thursday of last week, with 86 per cent voting against, with a 95 per cent voter turnout.
Many post-secondary institutions are announcing the resuming of classes this week following the legislation. Reaction from college students on social media has been mixed in response to the news. Many students feel angered and many have declared their wish for the semester to be cancelled and restarted at a later date. Hundreds of thousands across Ontario have been affected by the five-week long strike.
The Liberal government initially tabled the legislation on Thursday in response to the results of the faculty vote. The House reconvened on Friday at 3:00 p.m. to work for unanimous support for their back-to-work legislation. The provincial NDP successfully blocked all efforts at passing the legislation; however a motion was carried to allow the House to reconvene on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. to debate the measure. The final bill was passed on Sunday along party lines.
The action by the Ontario Liberals came after a decision on Thursday where 86 per cent of striking OPSEU members voted against a forced final offer from the College Employer Council. The offer included a 1.75 per cent wage increase in year one of the potential agreement, followed by two per cent increases for the following three academic years. The Council also proposed prioritizing full-time faculty positions over partial-load ones “when possible”, and allowing teachers to take more work to reduce the amount of part-time employees, a suggestion that OPSEU maintained would disproportionately hurt part-time faculty members.
OPSEU called on its membership to reject the offer, stating that the offer did not appropriately address two of the major issues that membership were concerned about: academic freedom for faculty and ‘precarious work’, meaning the increase in part-time, partial-load, contract faculty positions.
In a statement to The Brock Press following the vote tally last Thursday, the Communications team at OPSEU Local 242, which represents teachers at Niagara College, were adamant in their support of workers.
“The forced offer vote results indicate that an overwhelming majority of faculty are committed to quality education and fairness in our college system”, stated the OPSEU Local 242 Communications representatives. “The forced offer vote was an unnecessary delay that hurt both students and faculty, and it also was an abuse of public trust. We here at Niagara are committed to our students, and our fight is motivated by our steadfast commitment to see them get the quality of education they expect, deserve, and have paid for. We call on the CEC executives to resign, and for the government to oversee a regeneration of the college management system.”
Not all public sentiment was as supportive of the workers. Many college students across the province have taken to social media to share their displeasure and anger at the five-week long strike, which some claim have affected their financial situations and mental health. Many Twitter users who identified as college students pledged to never vote for the Ontario NDP following their blocking of back-to-work legislation, and some even announced their intention to drop out of their college studies due to the stress of the strike.
The College Student Association, which ‘advocates on behalf of Ontario college students’ has maintained in their media releases their displeasure at both OPSEU and the Council. In a press release on November 7, the CSA called for an immediate end to the strike.
“College Student Alliance urges the College Employer Council (CEC) and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) to agree to end the ongoing faculty strike through binding arbitration as students as coming dangerously close to losing their academic semester”, the statement read.
CSA President Joel Willet commented on the usage of back-to-work legislation, saying that the use of it was “the last thing we wanted to see to resolve the situation”. He also made clear the use of back-to-work was not something the government intended to use, and that both OPSEU and the CEC blamed one another for not negotiating in good faith.
“The fact that there are students out there who want the semester cancelled due to the labour action shows how frustrated they are with the situation”, Willet explained. “Students have no voice at the table, and use social media to echo opinions. Students are the only ones who are truly being affected in this situation.”
Chris Grawey, a student at Mohawk College, has been affected by the strike, but stood in support with striking faculty. Grawey believes that the issues affecting academic faculty are issues the entire workforce are facing.
“Many students, including myself, support striking faculty at Ontario’s public colleges”, Grawey explained. “Students support faculty because we understand that teachers’ working conditions directly impact the quality of our education.”