Durham College’s 11,000 students are currently in academic limbo as professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians walked off the job on Monday morning.
More than 12,000 college faculty are on strike after The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) failed to reach an agreement with the College Employer Council (CEC) by the deadline of 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 16.
The strike affects 500,000 students at Ontario’s 24 public colleges.
The halls of the school were far less populated than usual, while outside, members of OPSEU Local 354, the union that represents Durham faculty, converged on picket lines at the main entrances of the Simcoe Street campus.
Morgan Blades, a second-year Public Relations student, says while a “week or two break wouldn’t be so bad,” she’s concerned about the consequences should the strike last longer.
“It could affect our Christmas break. It may affect us in the long run,” Blades says.
For Dylan Biro, a first-year Fire and Life Safety Systems Technician student, the timing of the strike is frustrating.
“It’s not a good time. This is when we are learning the basic fundamentals of what our career covers,” he says.
Although the labour dispute costs students “learning and experience”, Biro is sympathetic to the concerns of the faculty.
“I can understand why they are upset,” Biro says, adding he “didn’t know most staff are [contracted]” and he doesn’t view the strike as a personal attack on students.
Both Blades and Biro revealed, apart from the lack of classes, most resources for students are available as normal.
“Everything is the same, the student services building is still open,” Blades says.
While some students are pleased with the time off, Biro says he’d rather get his work done.
“It’s not that we aren’t studying. We just can’t submit certain assignments and take tests.”
Blades is hopeful that students will be given some type of reimbursement through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), as every day of missed classes costs students money in her view.
Nicole Zwiers, president of OPSEU Local 354, says while she understands the frustration and anxiety the situation will cause for students, the decision to strike was not one that was taken lightly.
“The strongest and best way to end a strike is for the students to side with faculty and put pressure on the government and administration,” she says. “This is really about quality education. Our working conditions are their [students] learning conditions.”
Looking at the dispute, there are three main points of contention between the union and management.
OPSEU is seeking increased job security for part-time staff and more involvement of faculty in academic decisions.
Lastly, Zwiers says faculty are asking for a 50/50 ratio of the number of full-time and contract staff. She estimated the current ratio across the province is likely around 70 per cent contract staff to 30 per cent full-time.
“It’s different at each college, for example, Boreal College in [northern Ontario] is at 86 per cent contract staff, 14 per cent full-time, so it varies and the numbers are constantly changing,” Zwiers says, adding she was unaware of the current ratio at Durham.
A media statement from the CEC states the union insistence of a 50/50 ratio would result in a “net reduction of 3,350 contract faculty jobs.”
“The reality is that more than two out every three hours in the classroom are taught by OPSEU academic bargaining unit members, and fulltime faculty are responsible for 49% of all teaching contract hours,” the CEC statement reads.
CEC spokesperson Sophia Del Missier called the strike “completely unnecessary and unfair to hundreds of thousands of students.”
“We should have had a deal based on our final offer. It is comparable to, or better than,
recent public sector settlements with teachers, college support staff, hospital professionals, and Ontario public servants, most of which were negotiated by OPSEU,” Del Missier said. “The fastest way to resolve the strike is for the union to accept the colleges’ final offer, or, at the very least, put the colleges’ final offer forward to its members for a vote.”
The CEC claims accepting employee demands would add $250 million in costs for colleges.
While wages are an issue, Zwiers says there is “not a huge gap” between the two sides.
OPSEU is asking for a nine per cent wage increase over three years, which would increase the maximum salary for full-time staff to more than $116,000, while the CEC countered with an offer of 7.75 per cent over four years, which would put the maximum salary at approximately $115,400.
Zwiers says the picket lines will continue until the two sides come to a compromise.
“We’ve been speaking with people stopped in their cars, and they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive,” Zwiers says. “Yes, they are a little frustrated having to wait…but overall we have had strong support. We are going to stay out here as long as the strike is on.”