A Prof from Southwestern Ontario Deliberates

[. . .]  Given that I entirely agree with your assessment of the faculty position, you might be surprised to hear that I have not yet made up my mind as to how I will vote [. . . .]

I believe the following:
1. College Management is engaged in a cynical and well-planned attempt to bust the union by taking advantage of the law change which enables them to do so.
2. The biggest threat to faculty is not the current imposed terms and conditions themselves, but the lack of a collective agreement which allows college management to rewrite terms and conditions at whim going forward.
3. Colleges are well prepared for the eventuality of a strike, and have the financial means (most anyway) to engage in a prolonged strike. (I understand it will actually save money for many.)

I understand what is at stake for faculty if the strike mandate is not given. I understand the considerable concessions that would be given in workload – and to a lesser degree – in salary. I also understand the moral anger felt by faculty at having conditions imposed on us. I understand the threat to faculty, and in fact all college workers, going forward, if this is allowed to pass. So the union argues that we must respond with ‘a line in the sand’, and must force the colleges back to the bargaining table, and strike, if need be.

However, I am concerned by the following:
1. The strike in 2006, from which this one has arisen, achieved very little. (Unless you accept the taskforce report that appears to carry little weight.)
2. The majority of colleges are in a strong financial position, while the wider economy, and public perception, is not.
3. Colleges are prepared and will have planned for the eventuality of a strike.
4. The provincial government is likely to back the college position, given that any demands for more money are likely to land on the desks of provincial government, and public support is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Added to this, I am very concerned that without a collective agreement, if positions of bad-will harden further and the climate becomes entrenched, college management will see fit to make further ‘adjustments’ to terms and conditions, and perhaps make sweeping cuts to programs. The groundwork for this already appears to be happening at my college, with the announcement of a ‘Strategic Planning’ process to assess all aspects of the college, before Fall, 2010.

If these observations are correct, then faculty are in a VERY difficult position, and we are being asked to vote for 2 poor options, in an election which seems fairly well-rigged in favour of the colleges. The actions and intent of the colleges suggests that they are genuinely disinterested in bargaining, and willing to accept a strike. The lack of public support, and therefore lack of pressure on provincial government, means that a strike will have little leverage.

So, vote yes, and enter into a strike which management knows will not have teeth, will erode public support for faculty, and which could potentially last through the summer, and which in all likelihood, will end without significant gains or improvements for faculty over the current terms and conditions, at the cost of weeks and possibly months of salary. Or vote no, and effectively accept the current imposed terms and conditions, and a weakened union.

The way I see it, in a game of chess between the colleges and the union, the College Council (and more specifically the government which allowed the law change and enabled imposed terms and conditions) have placed the union in checkmate. Either way the vote goes, the union has lost this round of negotiation.

And so I am at my point of decision. When voting for 2 rotten eggs, which one stinks the most: Morally, I detest conceding to the bully. But anger aside, how much is lost if we accept the current terms and conditions under duress, and at least secure ourselves with a collective agreement that protects us, albeit temporarily, from further erosion? What is the potential loss from a prolonged strike, loss of public support, and most seriously; imposed terms and conditions which render us vulnerable to sweeping changes and an attack of much higher caliber?

Perhaps this time, we should consider the battle, the bully, and the size of his armory. Perhaps it is time to retreat, regroup, and prepare for a bigger battle in 4 years when public support may be more forthcoming and economic circumstances more favourable. Perhaps, in the interim, something could be done about the flawed law change which has allowed college management to abuse faculty [. . . .]

No disagreement here on most of your insights, and if you opt to vote against a strike, no-one will ever accuse you of casting an uninformed ballot!  But I might interpret a couple of points differently than you:

1. The colleges’ funding is potentially infinite; the union’s is not.  Therefore yes, the colleges could certainly engage in a prolonged strike, but many doubt that they would want to endanger the semester for 500,000 students.  The colleges have always had money, yet no Ontario college strike has ever lasted for longer than three weeks, and the government has intervened on at least one occasion in the past, at that point.

2. I agree that the last strike accomplished little (beyond the formation of the toothless Workload Task Force report).  That indicates, though, that the problem was that the strike was voluntarily called off too early (i.e., before the actual issues were actually resolved), for the sake of good faith and public opinion on the union’s part.   Were a strike to occur today, the professors could make a very credible argument that it shouldn’t be ended until the issues are actually resolved.  As well, although the 2006 strike achieved litte, if profs hadn’t struck convincingly, we can’t say where we would be right now (or what the Terms and Conditions imposed on faculty in November would have looked like).

3. The government is indeed on the colleges’ side (which makes me reluctant to argue that professors should be considered “Essential workers”, ineligible to strike).  With that said, the deal that a government-appointed arbitrator gives us could hardly be worse than the current Terms and Conditions.  More likely, if a strike can last long enough until Back-to-Work legislation and binding arbitration is imposed, the arbitrator will undo the college management’s efforts to gut the SWF’s universality and the union’s right to grieve contract violations.  Since the government-appointed member and the college-management-appointed member of the Workload Task Force both agreed that collegiality and academic freedom must be enhanced at colleges, I think it likely that strike-ending arbitration might have to throw the union a bone on that front as well.  It also might result in a shorter contract, committing us to lower salary increases for a shorter period of time.

Long story short: I think the current Terms and Conditions themselves are pretty terrible, and hurt the weakest of us — the partial-load faculty — the most.   I don’t see how we could do any worse by authorizing a strike.   College management has absolutely no reason to make a single compromise up until the time that profs indicate that they’re unsatisfied with the current Terms and Conditions (the college management deliberately chose to ensure that that indication could only take the form of a Strike vote —  they deliberately chose not to invite profs to vote on the Terms and Conditions).

I agree that the colleges are trying to weaken faculty unions.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this represents their very best chance to break the union since its inception.  [Which is probably why University faculty and their unions and associations have denounced the college management.] Whether or not they have a likely chance of breaking the union depends in no small part on your own vote.  Since the Terms and Conditions weaken both the SWF and grievance mechanisms, you might want to try to talk to some profs who had been teaching prior to the introduction of the SWF in 1987 — what was it like?

If any of our esteemed, experienced colleagues would like to add a story of what it was like to teach in Ontario colleges prior to the SWF (or even prior to unionization), that would be welcome!  Write me (confidentially) at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com

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