Uncertainty: College faculty vote for strike mandate
KITCHENER — A strike by faculty at Ontario’s 24 public colleges could arrive as early as October.
“There have been strikes in the past,” Conestoga College president John Tibbits said on Friday, the morning after unionized college faculty voted to give the Ontario Public Service Employees Union a strike mandate to back contract talks.
“No student has ever lost their year. But let’s face it, this is creating a lot of uncertainty for the students.”
The possibility of a strike likely makes the 12,500 full-time students at Conestoga campuses in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, Ingersoll, Stratford and Brantford nervous.
The strike mandate was given with the support of 68 per cent of faculty members who voted on Thursday.
“It’s not a powerful mandate,” Tibbits said.
But Lana-Lee Hardacre disagrees. The president of OPSEU Local 237 represents 782 unionized faculty members at Conestoga College.
“The highest rate we have ever got was 72 per cent provincially,” Hardacre said, putting the 68 per cent vote in perspective for the union. “So this is very high.” Twelve strike mandates have been granted over the past five decades of community colleges, Hardacre said. Three led to strikes. The last strike was in 2006.
The current collective agreement for 12,000 faculty provincewide runs out on Sept. 30.
Now, with a strike mandate that got 60 per cent support at Conestoga, the first strike in more than a decade is a real possibility as contract talks resume Monday.
“For faculty who have to choose between a strike mandate and being with their students, it’s a very difficult decision,” Hardacre said. “It shows they understand the issues we’re facing are significant.”
The issues, the union says, include the growing proportion of part-time faculty across Ontario colleges.
Hardacre says contract staff are up to 81 per cent, compared to 70 per cent three years ago. Tibbits counters that Conestoga has hired 107 full-timers in the past five years, including about 25 this year.
“We continue to hire full time,” Tibbits said. “But we can’t just have full time.”
At Conestoga, there are 469 full-timers among the 782 OPSEU-unionized faculty. Part-timers, teaching six hours or less, and sessionals, who teach 13 hours or more without being full-time, are to vote on establishing their own union within OPSEU in October.
“We have a lot of precarious work at the community colleges,” Hardacre said.
Tibbits, who calls the College Employer Council’s offer of a 7.5 per cent wage increase over four years a “good offer,” wishes union members had rejected a strike mandate.
“We could have settled perhaps or worked on this without a strike mandate,” Tibbits said. “I think this is unnecessary. We’re not producing cars here. This is putting a lot of stress on students unnecessarily.”
Hardacre expects the colleges to put up a determined fight in contract talks.
“I believe the council will dig in their heels and continue to use intimidation to frighten members by telling them that what we’re asking for costs millions of dollars,” she said.
So far, a possible strike date has not been announced.
“Nobody is talking about dates or anything,” Hardacre said.
“This is creating a lot of uncertainty for the students,” Conestoga College president John Tibbits says of the possibility of a strike.