An important show of unity on precarious employment

It was a cold grey morning in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, at 7am on 16 October last year, when 12,000 faculty members from 24 colleges donned their jackets, picked up their protest signs and began their protest.

Both full-time and contract faculty marched together in a massive strike that left 500,000 students without classes. Their demand was equal pay for equal work, a 50:50 full-time to part-time ratio of faculty (rather than the existing 30% full time to 70% part time), and academic freedom.

It was the start of a five-week historic and heated battle between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) (representing college faculty) and the College Employer Council (CEC). An incredible sense of solidarity, too, was shown between full-time and part-time faculty.

Precarious employment

The issue of precarious employment in Ontario’s higher education is not new and has more than once shut down prominent universities and colleges. In 2009, teaching assistants and contract faculty at York University went on strike for three months, citing issues around teaching loads, inequitable pay and barriers to progression in the academic ranks.

Like the recent college strike, the end only came when the Ontario government instituted back-to-work legislation. These types of strikes, centred on issues of uncertain employment and labour inequity, will likely not be the last.

The validity of unions

The action taken in October sparked a rhetorically loaded and emotionally charged debate in the media and in public forums about the role and validity of unions in our contemporary context. Naysayers decried unions as outmoded and were quick to point out the salaries of full-time and partial-load professors, neglecting the nuances of the debate.

The reality is that unions are essential as a means of gaining employment equity for partial-load or contract college professors, who can only teach a maximum of 12 hours a week and are not compensated for marking, meeting with students outside of class hours or lesson planning. Moreover, contract faculty are often competing for limited resources like office space and phone extensions and are often excluded from professional development opportunities.

The need for precarious workers was a main argument of the CEC, which claimed that the nature of the vocational, college curriculum and its response to market demands requires nimbleness in its hiring practices. The union returned with arguments about protecting the quality of education and enabling educators to have more control over the curriculum and influence in college decision-making processes. This adversarial exchange seemed to go on…and on…and on.

A union victory

The outcome of the strike was lauded by OPSEU as an ‘absolute victory’ – made sweeter by the memberships’ outright rejection of the offer that the CEC tabled prior to the passing of the back-to-work legislation, which the union claims is unconstitutional. The final arrangement was drawn up by Arbitrator William Kaplan and announced on 20 December, to the celebration of faculty and union representatives.

The main wins were in the language around academic freedom and advances for contract faculty, such as demanding that college employers actively track what courses contract faculty teach, how often and for how long. This type of tracking will ensure that faculty are issued contracts well before the start of a semester as well as given priority for courses they have taught in the past. It will also enable them to accrue seniority so that they can compete with full-timers when full-time positions become available.

The 50:50 ratio did not make its way into the collective agreement, nor did the Bill 148-inspired equal pay for equal work stipulation, which is subject to another year of ongoing discussions between OPSEU and the CEC. Detailed amendments to the collective agreement are available through this link.

Moving forward

The strike called attention to the issue of precarious employment in higher education and made inroads in improving the working conditions of professors, without whom, the system could not function. Fortunately, the discussion is far from over. The Ontario provincial government has made a commitment to establishing a task force that will seek to investigate the issue further.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the strike was the fact that full-time and contract faculty stood united. Both groups called for more equitable hiring and academic freedom, represented by the same union that works for the interests of both.

It is clear that unions are still a force to be reckoned with and, in the current climate of increasingly unstable employment, are indeed valid. And as OPSEU has demonstrated, their real strength comes through a united membership that champions the rights of precarious members alongside those who are full time.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. Emmanuelle Fick is a PhD student in the department of curriculum, learning and teaching at OISE, University of Toronto. She is a key member of the academic profession research team led by Dr Glen Jones and is regularly involved with Ontario's college system.