Lessons of the OPSEU Strike

December 12, 2017

 

On Sunday, November 19, the Ontario Liberal government and the provincial Conservatives passed Bill 178, the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Labour Dispute Resolution Act, 2017. The passage of this bill forced more than 12,000 full-time and partial load faculty, members of OPSEU, to give up their strike struggle and return to the classroom. This action came three days after faculty overwhelmingly rejected the College Employer Council's (CEC) last offer by a vote of more than 86 per cent with a turnout of 95 per cent.  The results of the vote clearly showed that faculty were united in rejecting any attempt to dictate a resolution which did not emerge through negotiation.

 

The legislative debates on Bill 178 took just less than two-and-a-half hours for all three readings. The Liberals and Conservatives showed contempt for the colleges, students and faculty and all working people in Ontario by refusing to permit any discussion on the significance of the legislation and instead pushing it through without debate.

 

Forcing the OPSEU workers back to work by special legislation amounts to criminalizing the workers’ actions.  In fact, the bill forced faculty to end their strike under pain of fines of $1,000 per day for individuals and $25,000 per day for the union. Further, the workers were legislated back even though the agreed-upon conditions of work remained essentially the same as they were before the strike.  Matters that had been negotiated were suddenly altered back to the status quo. The whole matter is now placed in the hands of a mediator-arbitrator appointed by the government.  The mediator has the exclusive power to decide everything, even though up until now the issues were being discussed by 12,000 workers, whose views have now been rendered irrelevant.

 

Mediation/arbitration has become the mechanism of choice of the ruling elite in Ontario to try to eliminate the right of workers to have a real say over their wages and working conditions by presenting arbitration as an "alternative." Since 2008 when the Ontario government ordered striking Toronto transit workers back to work, it has sought to eliminate workers' right to strike in the name of "protecting the public" while at the same time preventing arbitrators and the arbitration system from making necessary increased investment in public services.

 

The preamble to Bill 78 stated that the strike was having negative consequences for students and implied that the problem was that the members of OPSEU were preventing a settlement.  But the CEC, despite support from some members of the College Student Alliance, was unable to mobilize students against faculty (The CEC did not consult the other major student group, the CFS, at all.)   Many students came to the picket line and supported the strikers.  Many were outspoken in placing the blame for the strike squarely where it belonged, on the CEC and Ontario government.  A group of students is even contemplating suing the colleges for precipitating the strike and damaging their education.

 

Bill 78 also noted that any mediated/arbitrated settlement with the workers must take into account the “colleges’ ability to pay” and the state of the provincial economy.  In other words, the Ontario government wishes to continue starving education of much-needed funds so that instead it can continue to finance the big corporations which put it in power.  The government's actions are condemnable because it is eliminating the decisive factor for defending students' learning conditions, notwithstanding the government's claim that all its actions are undertaken in the interests of students. By imposing arbitration and telling employers that they need not bargain, the government is making dictate -- in this case by the government and then an arbitrator who is bound by the government -- the norm.

 

And, anyway, the Wynne government’s claim that it is pro-education is easily exposed as fraudulent.  if the Wynne government was so “pro-education” as it claims to be, it would have already declared education a right. It would also have already greatly increased funding for education; currently, Ontario only funds its colleges at 60 per cent of the Canadian average. Finally, the government would have sincerely collaborated with the education workers to improve their working conditions (which are student learning conditions) rather than ignoring them, ordering them back to work, and threatening them with the law. 

 

Certainly the workers will not take the attack by the Wynne government lying down.  They have won a moral victory by staying out for 5 weeks in support of their just demands, now they need to transform that into a material victory.   The need is to take the struggle to fund Ontario colleges at the Canadian level and the struggle to defend the rights of all through to completion. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are refusing to recognize that Ontario colleges suffer from chronic underfunding. Denial of rights stems from this underfunding and the desire of the rich and the monopolies to have a college system that serves their interests and not those of the youth and people of Ontario.

 

Ontario faculty and students must and will work to keep the issue of the colleges in the public eye in the period leading up to the next Ontario election and during the election, which is scheduled for June 2018. Now is the time for all to discuss how students and faculty can intervene in the election campaign to continue raising their demands.  The battle will continue!

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