Contract Negotiations at Ontario Universities

Well, just to provide some context for the current Unviersity negotiations, the offer that we — Ontario’s college faculty — voted in February to accept covered the period from Sept. 1, 2009 until August 31, 2012.

That’s a three-year stretch, but the first five months of it had already expired by the time that the offer was voted on (and another seven have passed, without our having yet seen a finalized version of the Collective Agreement).

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that the contract will expire 24 months from now, which means that  negotiations between the two sides will commence roughly 21 months from now, which means that Ontario’s college profs will be selecting a bargaining team and establishing bargaining priorities about 16 months from now.  (And yes, I know, we just finished the last round of negotiations six months ago.)

What will those negotiations look like?  The best indicator is likely shown in the current negotiations at some of Ontario’s Universities, as reported in the following article from the Globe and Mail:

Ontario calls on universities to agree to two-year wage freeze

Government urging management and labour leaders to stop ongoing contract negotiations

[by] Karen Howlett and Elizabeth Church

Published on Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010

The Ontario government is calling on university management and labour leaders who are in the midst of contract negotiations to stop talking and instead agree to impose a two-year wage freeze on unionized employees.

The government is urging all public-sector employers and labour leaders in the province to accept two year freezes. It plans to target universities first because many of them have collective agreements that are set to expire.

“It’s not that we chose them or they chose to go first,” a government official said last night. “It’s just that chronologically [their agreements] are coming up.”

More than half a dozen universities in Ontario are in the midst of bargaining talks, including the University of Western Ontario, Carleton University and the University of Waterloo.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan laid the groundwork for consultations with a variety of groups, representing the 750 contracts that expire between now and March, 2012, at a meeting on Tuesday with about 60 public-sector employers and labour leaders. He appealed to his audience, which included university presidents, to do their part to help the province rein in spending and sustain public services.

“If you are already at the bargaining table I encourage you to agree to pause,” Mr. Duncan said. “And I also hope you will agree that … arbitrations will be put on hold.”

Campus labour groups say they are considering their options. “The government is trying to impose its wishes for zero compensation increases without the legislative tools to do so,” said Henry Mandelbaum, head of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, who listened to Mr. Duncan deliver his request at Tuesday’s meeting.

Campus leaders, too, are trying to sort out the implications of the province’s request. “Universities are seeking further clarification of the government’s expectation,” said Council of Ontario Universities spokeswoman Jennifer Grass.

The province has indicated it will begin talking with employers and unions early next month. Both sides say they expect to hear soon how those consultations will work.

Several universities now in contract talks with employees are represented by a range of public-sector unions. Those talks are most advanced at the University of Toronto, where compensation issues with the campus faculty association are before arbitration.

A decision in that case could be made shortly, Mr. Mandelbaum said. It could test the government’s resolve to usher in its new era of restraint.

Some quick thoughts:

1. “Cart?  This is Horse speaking…”  Why is the Minister of Finance involving himself in Ontario University contract negotiations?  Shouldn’t that be the balliwick of John Milloy, Ontario Minster of Training, Colleges and Universities?  And, more importantly, isn’t it the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance to serve the needs of the province’s education system, rather than to determine those needs?

2. I haven’t yet heard the Ontario government ask businesses (say, gas stations, grocery stores, or GTA-house-sellers) to charge less money than they could.  What exactly would one call wage control unaccompanied by a corollary price control?

3. I haven’t yet heard the Ontario government ask corporations to stop requesting corporate tax cuts

4. If there’s a line in the article that raises my eyebrows, it’s Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s following request to both parties: “I also hope you will agree that … arbitrations will be put on hold”.  Why is this strange?  Arbitrators are third-parties who are selected by the schools and their faculty unions to resolve differences.  They are perfectly capable of taking into account the province’s finances, as well as the province’s academic needs.  Why would Duncan wish to take them out of the loop, unless he knew that there is a strong, reasonable argument to be made for salary increases?

But, thinking generally of this situation as it might apply to our own upcoming negotiations, I have to admit to a certain curiosity: It’s likely that the province (which has profound direct impact on the operations of Ontario colleges, unlike Ontario universities) will offer 0% raises.  It’s conceivable that they could even legislate this, if the Charter of Rights and Freedoms admits it.  So my curiosity would be this — would will the colleges be willing to offer in place of salary increases?  Academic Freedom?  New full-time hires?  Fixed or reduced class sizes?

In a nutshell (and you’ll probably hear me repeat this quite a bit in the next few months), the colleges could offer many things to professors instead of salary increases — all of them would be extremely bitter pills for the colleges to swallow, and the colleges would probably prefer (as they did in the last round of negotiations) to simply offer salary increases and avoid disrupting the status quo of the colleges’ “way of doing things”.  We’ll see whether the province is sufficiently invested in this “way of doing things” to pony up salary increases when it comes time for the Colleges to negotiate.

If not, the colleges’ current way of doing things could change.

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