A Tale of Two Narratives…

Howdy, sports fans.

When I resumed blogging over the summer, I had originally intended to try to accompany my posts about this round of negotiations with the notation of an unfolding game of chess.

Looking back at it, I’m pretty happy that that conceit got dropped quickly, because it’s awfully hard to construct a chess game in which there’s a stalemate in under six moves.

But that’s apparently where we are: The Union’s bargaining is unwilling to abandon virtually all of its members’ demands for the sake of a settlement at the table; the Employer’s bargaining team is currently unwilling to negotiate any of the Union’s demands, opting instead to stand pat with an offer that offers a salary increase averaging less than 1.9% annually over the next four years.

And so, both teams’ latest bulletins share a strange agreement that the situation has been reduced to a binary: If the Union membership wishes to see any changes other than the offered salary increase, then authorizing a strike is the only way to accomplish that.

One would assume, then, that the obligation attending both sides’ communications would be to defend their current positions, and seeming intransigence. For the Union, it would be an obligation to explain why the demands are significant enough to justify seeking a strike mandate; for management it would be an obligation to explain why it cannot further negotiate any remaining demands.

You can find the latest messages from each side on the right-hand column, and you can decide for yourself which bulletin best manages to meet that standard.

Personally, I’m struck by both the similarity of the newsletters’ respective headlines, but also to the significance of how they diverge.

The Union’s newsletter is entitled “Two visions for a system in crisis”.  It situates the current stalemate between the two sides in their radically different notion about the fundamentals of staffing and academic decision-making in Ontario colleges, and whether the status quo (which is fundamentally unchanged since the system’s founding in 1967) is sufficient for the current and future needs of the system’s students, and by extension Ontario’s society and economy.

The Employer’s newsletter is entitled “Two paths: Strike or settlement”. It features a rhetorical return to what I earlier described as “the paternal tone of a benevolent, sweater-vest-clad figure whose job it is to make difficult choices in the face of scarce resources”.  That voice tells us that having an established minimum ratio of Full-Time faculty is just too darn expensive, so management should be able to have complete, unfettered control over staffing, with no obligation to hire a single full-time faculty member for the next four years.  Because the Employer knows best what the system needs.

That voice also drops in regret, to warn us that it would be far, far too risky to entrust the education of Ontario College students to… the people who actually provide that education. But rest assured that it thinks that faculty are really, really special – we’re even “critical to academic decision making”.

This, in an explanation about why the Collective Agreement cannot possibly be changed in a way that would make faculty . . . critical to academic decision-making.

“So look, Union members,” the sweater vest tells us, “Why this windmill-chasing and why the dreams of stepping somewhere you don’t belong?  Know your place, and tell your team to stop this foolishness, so that we can come to a settlement that doesn’t… disrupt anything. And everything can go back to exactly the way it was in the good old days. We know that you have needs, so we’ve left some money on the table for you – you can take it as you leave. Get yourself something nice with it.  And hey — You’re really special to me.  Let’s meet up again soon.”

•                    •                    •

In the end, we’re presented with binaries, but the intersections exist on different planes: The Employer is discussing what is needed for a successful, effective round of negotiations, and making arguments about how to best achieve it. The Union is discussing what is needed for a successful, effective College system, and making arguments about how to achieve it.

What’s missing, in my opinion, from the Employer’s messaging – and has been missing this entire round of negotiations – is any positive defense of the status quo of the Ontario College system. Any positive explanation of how the system benefits from having 80% of faculty on short-term contracts; how the system benefits from explicitly taking academic decisions out of the hands of academic experts; how the system benefits from the lack of a workload formula for counsellors and librarians, or the lack of a workload formula that takes into account the unique workload associated with online or hybrid teaching.

These are all elements of the current Ontario college system – of the status quo that is the product of our past Collective Agreements and the Employer’s decisions.  The Employer has made no effort to defend those decisions, or make a persuasive argument about the superiority of the education provided by the current system over that proposed by the Union.

Ultimately, I interpret this to mean that the Employer believes that it doesn’t need to justify the current state of the College system to the faculty, who are actually performing the Colleges’ raison d’etre.  More importantly, it indicates that the Employer believes that faculty share that opinion.

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