By Neil Powers
The strike is over. Centennial and other colleges’ students will be back in the classroom on Tuesday, November 21.
Students have been out of class since the strike began on October 16. The colleges and union were not able to reach an agreement on a contract during the strike so the provincial government acted to end the strike.
During the strike, the College Employer Council (CEC), the organization bargaining on behalf of Ontario’s 24 colleges used their legal right to have the Ontario Labour Relations Board order a vote by union members on the colleges’ proposed contract.
The November 16 vote results showed the Ontario Public Service Employees Union’s (OPSEU) members voted 86 percent “no” to the proposed contract. About 95 percent of the 12,000 members voted. The union had urged members to vote “no”.
In the spirit of Halloween, this Centennial picket-line walker claimed her name is Yeti.
Premier Kathleen Wynne called for a meeting with the union and colleges shortly after the results were announced on Thursday morning. OPSEU and the CEC were given until 5 p.m. Thursday to arrive at a contract agreement but they were not successful.
The Premier initiated back to work legislation on Thursday evening but was delayed until Friday because the New Democratic Party (NDP) legislators were not supportive.
Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council (CEC), told the Courier that the colleges “gave it our best shot.” He spoke of not being able to get an agreement with the union on a settlement through “voluntary arbitration.”
Centennial faculty walking the picket line. Martin Preston (left) and Carol Preston (centre) joined with Gazali Jainudeen to show support for a fair contract benefitting students and faculty. The Prestons teach applied biological and environmental science related courses. Jainudeen teaches at the School of Transportation.
There is a clear difference of opinion on the Thursday evening media release sent by the CEC’s consultant. It alleged that “OPSEU’s new demand for a $5,000 return to work bonus for each striking faculty member would be diverted away from the student hardship fund that Minister Matthews announced last week.” The hardship fund dollars would come from money saved by colleges during the strike.
The union’s lead negotiator, JP Hornick messaged the Courier saying the allegation is not true. “We did ask for our members to be compensated for two weeks…..but never said it should come from a student hardship fund,” Hornick said.
The Courier asked Sinclair about the union’s recollection of never proposing any faculty compensation from a student hardship fund. Sinclair was not able to confirm that the union asked to specifically use funds from the proposed student hardship fund. Instead, he talked about the theory of the student hardship fund being an obvious funding source for the union.
Students are finding ways to be heard. A petition with over 136,000 names is asking colleges for a refund to students for the lost class time.
An initial 14 students will also be part of a class action legal effort asking for refunds to all students for classes missed due to the strike.
Centennial’s Student Association president, Ravneet Kaur points to the need to see students back in the classroom. “For us, that’s the only one priority we’ve been focusing on,” Kaur said.
In recent weeks, striking picket-line walkers at Centennial’s Progress Campus were handing out flyers that included a call for “A minimum 50:50 ratio of full-time to non-full-time faculty to maintain stability and improve quality for students.” The part-time staff makes up about 70 percent of the faculty.
The colleges have not agreed with the union’s proposed ratio.
The Courier spoke with the CEC in recent weeks. “Our offer does include language that gives preference to creating full-time jobs,” Sonia Del Missier, the colleges lead negotiator said. Del Missier explained that staffing ratio introduces a rigidity and the CEC wants to address staffing ratios in a more “flexible way.”
Natalie Plociennik studies fine arts at Centennial. She spoke from the picket-line outside the college’s Story Arts Centre.
“We have one full-time teacher …out of seven courses,” she said. Part-time faculty tends to have four-month contracts. They are paid for class-time but not class preparation, grading papers or speaking with students outside of class.
“What will change is the end-date of the semesters – classes have been extended to December 22, but the college will close as scheduled for the Christmas holidays,” Ann Buller, Centennial College president told the Courier.
In an update sent to students on Sunday, Centennial’s fall semester will end January 12.
Sheldon Shiewitz and James McVittie are faculty at Centennial’s School of Business, Progress Campus. They support the union’s position.
“People who have a perception of what the strike is about or who are unsure should educate themselves both by looking at the employer (colleges) website and also the OPSEU (union) website and to take a critical look at both,” Shiewitz said.
“We’re here for our students…this is about making college better for our students in the long-term,” McVittie says.