Some Musings on the Support Staff Strike

Okay, well, three days until the start of the school year, and my silence on the current strike by Ontario College support staff seems like a glaring omission.

One of the reasons I don’t have too much to say about it is that I don’t have access to any real understanding of what’s going on at the bargaining table, and I’ve learned to distrust the oversimplification of labour negotiations in most newspapers (where the attention is almost exclusively on financial claims, and where the two sides’ positions are typically reported uncritically and without any objective investigation).

So I’ll start by referring to the latest bulletin from the Support Staff bargaining team at: http://www.opseu.org/caat/caat_sup/bargaining2011/bulletins/caat-s_strike_bulletin_01_web.pdf .  On the other side of the bargaining table, Colleges Ontario appears to be mum on the issue.

[Addendum: A GTA support staff member has directed me to the union’s and the college management’s initial bargaining proposals from June here and here, respectively.  And, while Colleges Ontario has no information on negotiations, the College Employer Council has posted its updates here.]

Looking at the list of issues in the Support Staff newsletter, I do see that salary is present (with the workers’ attempting to have salary increases that keep pace with inflation), along with several different issues related to the scheduling of their work.   There’s also a fair bit about giving union reps the time off to do their elected duties properly, which is pretty important in the long run, although not something that Toronto Star readers would be particularly interested in hearing about.

So what can I say about this?  Well, let me start by saying this: Whatever you think about the province’s economy, or unions, or postsecondary education, I hope that you’ll agree that Support Staff do pretty damn important work.  And if their work wasn’t so damn important, nobody would care whether they were on strike.

Support staff are the people who make sure that the books arrive in the bookstore, that the colleges’ online systems are up and running, that students are properly registered in classes, and that copies of exams appear in the profs’ mailboxes by the exam date.

They are also the people who do the photocopying of those exams and of course materials.  They’re the people who manage to keep the classrooms clean after the 320 or so students who pass through them each day.  They manage to guide students through the labyrinthine protocols regarding registration or course changes.  They make sure that the overhead projectors actually project, and — in the end — they manage  to make sure that everybody’s able to work productively in the colleges, whether it be in the dead of winter or summer’s heat.

And if a college can undertake a major construction project without a single reported injury to members of the college community, well, we owe support staff a considerable debt of gratitude for that as well.

That’s some of what they do, but what they do is less important than who they are.  Let me put it plainly: I’ve never been yelled at by a support staff member, no matter how richly I may have deserved it from time to time.  No matter how overworked college managers are, no matter how disorganized professors are, no matter how confused students are — well, it’s the support staff who have our backs, day after day: In my experience, they do this always with professional courtesy, typically with a smile, and sometimes (on those rare, blessed occasions) with a piece of chocolate.

And my main regret about the way that the mass media cover today’s labour movement is that we really only hear about the work that people do at the very times when they threaten to stop doing it.  Practically, that entails that workers can’t get their negotiations taken seriously by their employers or the public until they go on strike.  Moreover, because of that reportage, the public can too easily forget that workers spent the last 1,000 days (or, in the case of support staff, the last 32 years) working without interruption, since public attention is given only on the week when the workers withhold that labour.

And that’s an injustice — not just to the striking workers (whose work is important and worthy of respect), but it’s an injustice to the people who rely on the media for their understanding of our province’s well-being.  When we ignore the work that people do, we ignore the degree to which our province’s economic well-being ultimately rests upon productivity, which is to say… labour.  We ignore the fact that our province’s economy is characterized by complex patterns of co-operation and mutual dependence, rather than isolated scenes of conflict and competing interests.

And lastly, if newspapers are seriously concerned about addressing the death of Canada’s middle class (as opposed to simply eulogizing it), they might want to pay closer attention to this particular strike, which appears to be a noteworthy battle in the continuing struggle against eroding wages and the casualization of labour.

Send any thoughts about the role of support staff in your life and your productivity to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com

[Postscript: Reactions to this post can be found in the comments section and here.  My thoughts on the media coverage of this strike and academic labour negotiations in general can be found here.]

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