Fighting a war of attrition on college campuses to the last student body

Posted on December 23, 2017 in Education Delivery System – Opinion/Columnists – Labour relations is always a power struggle. But the lesson is that it needn’t be a fight to the death pitting union solidarity against management obstinacy,
Dec. 22, 2017.   By

In short order, the longest strike ever at Ontario’s colleges is now history. Just in time for Christmas, we now have an arbitrator’s post-mortem:


With a few strokes of the arbitrator’s pen, the supposedly insoluble dispute has been resolved, seemingly to the satisfaction of both sides. The point is that a strike that dragged on for five long weeks, shortchanging nearly 500,000 college students, could have been resolved easily had both sides acted saner by acting sooner.

Labour relations is always a power struggle. But the lesson is that it needn’t be a fight to the death — to the last student body — pitting union solidarity against management obstinacy.

Make no mistake, students were unwilling spectators to this grudge match, paying an unfair price in lost classroom time. In the aftermath, more than 25,000 students dropped out, and hundreds of thousands had their semester unconscionably compressed.

That’s an indefensible toll in collateral and curricular damage. There is no way this war of attrition should ever again be repeated in this province.

Yes, instructors had legitimate grievances on the picket line about their precarious employment, but college students were surely in even more precarious situations — without steady income and with no classes to attend. Against that backdrop, the government finally stepped in last month to legislate teachers back to work, over their objections.

Despite the union’s rhetoric, when the burden is disproportionately borne by others no one’s rights are unrestrained. In reality, the legislature rescued OPSEU from the corner it had painted itself into, constrained by rigid rhetoric that members adopted as gospel.

I’ve written before that what started out as a sensibly practical strike to protect instructors from a precarious workplace — unpredictable scheduling and lack of reasonable job security — morphed into a theoretical crusade for “academic freedom” fought on the backs of students and waged at the expense of taxpayers. The best evidence that this strike went off the rails is that an arbitrator found the supposed sweet spot so fast.

Much like the Middle East conflict, it was always clear what a final settlement would look like. But the two sides were too bogged down to look up from the trenches until after the arbitrator’s armistice, by which time all had become retrospectively clear.

While students were undeniably losers, OPSEU and management are now unabashedly declaring victory with alacrity after the arbitrator’s ruling. How could they both be right?

Apart from spin, the answer is that each side was right and wrong in its own way, on both substance and process: The union started out right and then lost its way by digging in on the wrong issue. The college employer got off on the wrong foot and then found a compromise path — but tried to bully its way through by forcing a vote on an unwilling membership.

This week, the College Employer Council crowed that the arbitrator’s 7.75-per cent pay hike over four years aligned precisely with their final offer. They were right about that, but money was never a deal-breaker in this dispute.

OPSEU issued a breathless news release claiming it broke new ground on academic freedom. A more realistic reading of the ruling is that the union got what it already had — the arbitrator came up with generic language about the right to “speak freely about academic issues,” which the employer’s council points out is already codified in most colleges.

The idea that teaching about the food and beverage industry or auto mechanics requires the same recourse to “academic freedom” enjoyed by tenured political scientists pursuing controversial topics never made sense. What the union didn’t win was the right to share in management rights — notably in designing and administering courses — and so after all those wasted weeks on the picket line, the union belatedly found a way to declare victory on a losing issue.

How to avoid future Pyrrhic victories? A sheepish Liberal government — the provincial paymaster behind the scenes — has acknowledged that it now needs to do for colleges what it long ago did for school boards. The government relies on an independent advisory body to declare whenever a strike threatens the school year, and now wants to emulate that model at the college level.

But the province can do more. When school boards bargain with high school or elementary teacher unions, the government is often in the room helping to reach a resolution. In the latest strike, the all-powerful College Employer Council acted as a province-wide, one-size-fits-all bargaining structure that was a poor fit for campuses that do things differently (like codify compromises on free speech).

Despite the high stakes, an unaccountable college council contracted out negotiations to professional lawyers who were in such a hurry to play hardball with teachers that they missed the mark. Next time the government must step up to the plate instead of wringing its hands on the sidelines.

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