Don’t let Ontario’s college system suffocate itself

Posted on in Education Debates – News/Queen’s Park – Piecework professors are the dirty little secret of the province’s sprawling educational-industrial complex.
Nov. 8, 2017.   By

What started out as a justifiable strike to protect the rights of vulnerable college teachers has spiralled into an unjustifiable power struggle over who’s right.

Four weeks later, as many as 500,000 paying students are paying a disproportionate price. And learning a disappointing lesson in how far teachers and college administrators will go to prove a point — right down to the last student.

From the first, the union rightly stressed the plight of precarious workers — contract teachers who form the vast majority of staff at Ontario’s 24 colleges. OPSEU reminded us that piecework professors are the dirty little secret of the province’s sprawling educational-industrial complex.

This strike has remained surprisingly below the radar. Unlike the bitter work stoppages that play out on the front pages when schoolchildren are involved, hundreds of thousands of students have suffered in silence, their petitions largely ignored by a hands-off government.

On the Liberals’ watch, our community colleges have strayed from their original mandate of offering functional, applied schooling for young people trying to navigate an increasingly precarious job market. Shortchanged by provincial funding, today’s colleges make up the difference by exploiting instructors while expanding into the terrain of universities.

The resulting paradox of precarity — instructors ghettoized into unstable short-term contracts while trying to equip students for steady employment — proved profoundly embarrassing for the colleges. OPSEU demanded that the number of part-time and contract teaching faculty rise to 50 per cent — a battle worth fighting, as I argued in a column last month.

To its credit, the union shamed college employers into recognizing their hypocrisy at the negotiating table. With new legislation requiring employers to pay part-timers on the same scale as full-timers, the colleges grudgingly agreed to a provincial task force to examine the issue in depth.

At that point, compensation negotiations came to within a quarter of a percentage point of resolution. Then the talking stopped.

And the rhetoric took over, with both sides digging in on the more vexing issue of academic freedom. OPSEU sought what amounts to a power-sharing arrangement that would effectively give teachers veto rights over what and how they teach.

Under the guise of academic freedom, such lofty demands disguise more mundane workplace disputes. Employees in all workplaces are sometimes subject to seemingly arbitrary demands and capricious interventions by employers.

But management rights (right or wrong) are normally vested in management — with disagreements resolved in the grievance process or human rights tribunals. For college instructors to elevate their disputes to the realm of academic freedom is a conceit borrowed from cutting-edge professors in the rarefied world of research universities.

Perhaps OPSEU has been infected by the same university-creep that has animated college administrators seeking to expand their empires. But colleges are not collectives, nor are they universities. Workplace disagreements on their campuses are not conceptually different from the clashes in Ontario high schools, where academic freedoms are not codified in such a way.

While the union got bogged down in an ivory tower war of attrition, the College Employer Council plotted a sneak attack of its own. It invoked the employer’s one-time right to force a vote by the union membership on its final offer — a controversial and potentially poisonous move in labour relations.

Now, we are stuck with a strike for at least another week until members can cast ballots. Even more mischievously, the employer asked OPSEU to end its work stoppage immediately, knowing full well they had put the union in an impossible position.

OPSEU is vulnerable, having won a strike vote of barely two-thirds in September — a relatively modest mandate in the posturing game of labour negotiations. No union wants to see its own members cross a picket line, nor refuse their own advice to reject a final offer — and no one wants to see a union undone.

Labour dynamics are always unpredictable, but disputes in the public sector cause collateral damage. This strike has gone on far too long, with neither side knowing when to quit — and seemingly oblivious to the impact on students with the clock ticking on their term.

Making the best of a bad hand, OPSEU has countered by asking the employer council to return to the table immediately. And it’s hard to imagine why the colleges wouldn’t agree, having exacerbated an already pointless confrontation.

Kathleen Wynne has taken a hands-off approach until now, but time’s up. The premier needs to remind the colleges that talking is better than attacking. And the union needs to remember that bargaining is about compromising — not just for the sake of students in the classrooms, but teachers in the membership.

If they don’t, all sides will have to live with the long-lasting consequences for our colleges: the Liberal government, college presidents, union leaders, and — not least — the nearly 500,000 students now missing classes.

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This entry was posted on Friday, November 10th, 2017 at 2:10 pm and is filed under Education Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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