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Why the longest strike in college history was inevitable

Thirty-six days.

That number will go down in history as the longest-ever faculty strike in college history.

Competing visions of the college sector and an inability to agree on key issues caused the strike, but it was inevitable given the history of problematic relations between employees and colleges going back to the creation of the system.

Let’s take a walk through history to see why this year’s strike wasn’t so unusual.

The first sign of trouble surfaced around 1971, when academic employees began bargaining for their first collective agreement. At the time, college employees were considered civil servants and were not allowed to strike.

Bargaining was unproductive and a number of issues had to be sent to binding arbitration after an agreement couldn’t be reached.

Arbitration is a process where a neutral third party hears from both sides of an issue and then renders a final, binding decision that cannot be appealed.

The situation was so impaired, in 1988 the government commissioned Jeffrey Gandz to review the collective bargaining process to find out ways to improve it.

“The academic (bargaining) unit started off the way they would continue to negotiate throughout their history,” Gandz wrote in his report. “The first set of negotiations was protracted, although the seven-month time period may, in the light of subsequent negotiations, be considered breakneck speed!”

Gandz wrote that the relationship between management and faculty was “dysfunctional” and speculated that the reason may be due to competing personalities.

The first strike occurred in 1984 and was primarily over concerns the union had about workload. It ended in back-to-work legislation and issues were referred to an arbitrator – except workload, which was examined by a special committee instead.

The 1984 strike was considered a “success” because it wound up satisfactorily addressing the issues at play, Gandz wrote.

Gandz suggested allowing more flexibility in the process could help with some of the problems and the government changed the bargaining law. But problems continued.

Future strikes followed a similar model – all, including this year’s, ended by referring unresolved issues to binding arbitration. In 2006 and 2017, a task force was also created to examine certain issues.

In 2008, another review was undertaken by Kevin Whitaker, who noted many of the same problems persisted.

“The colleges and full time academic staff have historically been unable to get the other side’s attention for what they understand to be many of their primary bargaining concerns and goals,” Whitaker wrote.

No surprise that the primary complaint of the union OPSEU in the latest round of bargaining was that the colleges’ bargaining agent was flat-out ignoring its demands.

Jack Wilson, the first vice-president of Algonquin’s local union OPSEU 415, complained to the Algonquin Times that the College Employer Council was stonewalling.

“Good negotiations should provide thoughtful and meaningful discussion,” said Wilson in an interview on Sept. 6. “(So far) it’s just been no, no, no, no.”

So what now?

The union has put forth their suggestion for fixing the issue – abolish the College Employer Council.

“It’s been outdated for the last 30 years,” said Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of OPSEU, in a news conference in mid-November. “It’s archaic, it’s achronistic.”

In an interview, he called the Council a private club for college executives. He couldn’t say what the bargaining system should look like in the absence of the Council but said it is something the forthcoming government task force could look at.

He said the colleges should use a “two-tiered” bargaining system where big issues are discussed centrally and other issues locally at each college. While local bargaining does have limited existence in the system today, it has never been considered a true two-tiered system.

His biggest complaint about the Council is its secrecy – it does not publish membership or financial information as it is considered a private corporation owned by colleges.

“There needs to be transparency from the management,” he said.

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