By Andy Crosby

When Ontario college students returned to classes for the winter semester in January, more than 12,000 faculty and other workers had a new collective agreement. After a bitter five-week strike that began on Oct. 16 ended with back-to-work legislation, arbitrator William Kaplan awarded the terms of a new four-year collective agreement.

Annette Carla Bouzi, shop steward with Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) local 415 and Legal Studies professor at Algonquin College, viewed the terms of Kaplan’s decision as positive steps forward.

“In my view, the Kaplan Award brought good closure to the strike and settled some of the dust that remained after we were legislated back,” Bouzi told the Leveller. “It provided a clear return to work protocol, strengthened partial load job security and referred some important questions around academic freedom and precarious work to a provincial task force.”

Although OPSEU and the College Employer Council (CEC) both claimed victory following the announcement, Kaplan’s decision clearly favoured the union’s demands.

“The Kaplan Award was very much a vindication for college faculty,” Jack Wilson, Vice-President of OPSEU local 415 and Algonquin College faculty member in the Police and Public Safety Institute, told the Leveller.

In particular, accepting OPSEU’s terms on academic freedom almost word for word was claimed as a “watershed moment for the colleges that will be truly transformational in the years ahead,” in the words of a bargaining team update published on OPSEU’s website.

“Academic freedom is no longer a whim of college policy; it is now enshrined in the collective agreement,” said Wilson.

The union claims that the new academic-freedom language will allow faculty to speak freely about academic issues without fear of reprisal.

Other terms include improved job security and a new province-wide task force that will make recommendations on a variety of issues including college funding, precarious work, accessibility, mental health and academic governance structures.

The CEC emphasized that Kaplan’s decision was in line with its original salary position of a 7.75 per cent wage increase over four years.

Compensation was also awarded — $900 each to full-time faculty and $450 each to partial-load faculty for extra work completed after the strike.

OPSEU argues that the terms coming out of the binding mediation-arbitration process could have and should have been achieved at the bargaining table a long time ago.

“With any reasonable amount of cooperation from the colleges, there would never have been a strike, students would not have had to worry about losing their semester and faculty would never have lost five weeks’ pay,” said JP Hornick, chair of the OPSEU college faculty bargaining team in a news release.

When talks broke down last November, OPSEU called for the provincial government to disband the CEC altogether. “Council is a private club that is accountable to no one,” said OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “It is a small group of privileged people that asked for 30 to 40 per cent wage increases this year but are more than happy to make work more and more precarious for the frontline faculty who make education happen.”

The CEC’s actions during the negotiations and strike were disruptive. However, the end result created favourable gains for college faculty and workers.

These gains made the strikers’ efforts all worthwhile. In all, Bouzi spent about 100 hours on the picket line, for example. “I walked the line for my friends and colleagues who didn’t have a voice and for my children whom I hope will inherit a quality education system,” Bouzi said.

For Wilson, the strong stand taken by workers during the strike has even had a “ripple effect,” where “post-secondary bargaining units elsewhere have capitalized on our efforts and have gotten swift contract resolutions when they too showed their willingness to strike, in some cases with strike mandates of over 90 per cent.”

Wilson referenced CUPE 2424 – which represents administrative, technical, and library staff at Carleton University – where members voted 93 per cent in favour of strike action, as well as the Association of Part-Time Professors University of Ottawa, who voted 92 per cent in favour last term.

“Most importantly, for our students we can anticipate that the improvements in our working conditions should result in commensurate improvements in their learning conditions, and that is something we can take the most satisfaction from.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).