By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
When the college faculty strike that kept nearly 12,000 Durham students out of class for five weeks ended on Nov. 19, 2017, the issue mostly faded from the public’s peripheral vision, but continued to fume behind closed doors.
The impact on students was immediately seen as almost 1,200 Durham students and 25,000 across the province chose to withdraw from their programs.
In the meantime, even with the strike over, the union representing college faculty, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), and the College Employee Council (CEC), still needed to reach a new agreement.
Because bargaining had come to a standstill, the province appointed well-known arbitrator William Kaplan to iron out the issue. The details of the new agreement, as awarded by Kaplan, were released in late-December.
Included was a 7.75 per cent pay increase for college professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians over a four-year agreement, mirroring the final offer from the CEC that OPSEU members overwhelmingly rejected in early November.
In his ruling, Kaplan sided with the union’s request for more academic freedom and involvement in the academic process, a decision OPSEU officials called “nothing short of historic.”
“For the first time in history, we have meaningful academic freedom language in our collective agreement,” said Nicole Zwiers, president of OPSEU Local 354 representing Durham staff and vice-chair of the union’s bargaining team.
OPSEU also claimed the agreement represents major gains for ‘partial-load faculty’, including earlier negotiations, a more swift ascent up the union’s salary grid and increased recognition of seniority when applying for new contracts.
Kaplan also awarded a one-time payment for college faculty returning back to work, $900 for full-time staff and $450 for part-time.
Finally, a ‘multi-stakeholder, government-facilitated task force’ will be established to make recommendations on “faculty complement, precarious work, college funding, student success, collegial governance, and other issues critical to the success of the college system.”
Following the release of Kaplan’s ruling, both sides proclaimed victory on the issue.
“It’s really vindication that faculty’s vision for the college system was not only reasonable but necessary,” Zwiers said during a press conference.
In a media release, the CEC stated they were “very pleased” with Kaplan’s award, calling it “consistent with the colleges’ bargaining positions.”
OPSEU president Warren Thomas claimed the strike could have been avoided altogether if the CEC had been willing to bargain from the beginning.
“In OPSEU, we literally bargain hundreds of contracts. And almost all these negotiations never attract the attention of a single reporter, and for a simple reason. Reasonable people on both sides of the bargaining table…can usually arrive at an agreement,” Thomas said. “But that’s not the case with the colleges. I cannot remember a time when they were not one of our most difficult employers to deal with.”
A timeline of the 2017 college strike
- July 4 to July 6 – First round of bargaining talks, both sides lay down their respective offers and OPSEU sets a strike vote date of Sept. 14
- Early August – Negotiations continue but no deal is made
- Sept. 14 – OPSEU members vote 68 per cent in favour of striking should no deal be negotiated
- Sept. 27 and 28 – With only a few days before the collective agreement expires, the union and CEC return to the table but there is little progress.
- Sept. 30 – The collective agreement between faculty and colleges expires
- Oct. 10 – OPSEU sets strike date of Oct. 16, decrying the latest offer from the employer
- Oct. 16 – More than 12,000 faculty across Ontario’s 24 public colleges walk off the job, leaving classrooms empty. Approximately 500,000 students are impacted
- Nov. 2 – Bargaining resumes
- Nov. 6 – After OPSEU’s bargaining team once again rejects the CEC’s offer, the employer asks the Ontario Labour Relations Board to bring the offer directly to members for a vote
- Nov. 14 to 16 – OPSEU members vote directly on the CEC’s offer, rejecting it by an 86 per cent margin
- Nov. 16 – The Liberal government moves to pass back-to-work legislation, but NDP MPs block it temporarily.
- Nov. 19 – The back-to-work legislation is passed at Queen’s Park by a 39-18 vote
- Nov. 21 – Classes resume at Ontario’s colleges
- Dec. 12 – The province announces 25,700 full-time students, roughly about 10 per cent, withdrew from studies due to the strike
- Dec. 20 – Details of new agreement, arbitrated by William Kaplan, are released