The recent strike by OPSEU college faculty was a major event in the history of this province.
It was a big strike, and big strikes have big impacts. More than 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians were off the job. More than 500,000 students were out of classes. Millions of Ontarians knew someone touched by the strike. Media coverage was intense for the full five weeks.
The strike’s high profile meant that when our faculty bargaining team put issues on the table, they also put them into the public debate. The strike spurred a huge conversation about precarious work, not just in the colleges, but in our workforce as a whole.
Do students go to college to get part-time jobs with low wages and few benefits? Of course not. That’s why so many students were on the picket lines supporting faculty. Students knew the strike was about them and their futures.
The strike also put forward ideas to improve education for students by, for example, hiring more full-time faculty and giving all faculty more say in the way courses are taught and evaluated. This is important: our colleges are the economic engine of Ontario, and if they’re not the best they can be, we’re not the best we can be. The strike got millions of people thinking about how to make the colleges better.
On top of that, the strike provoked a conversation about the role of collective bargaining in a democratic society. That is a conversation we will continue with our legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. When the government legislated faculty back to work on November 19, it did so even though it had other options. Most obviously, it could simply have directed the way the colleges bargained: after all, they are called “Crown agencies” specifically because they are not independent from government.
In any case, collective bargaining rights are on the public agenda in Ontario, and we aim to keep them there.
Last but not least, the strike made concrete gains for college faculty. The task force included in the employer’s last contract offer will give faculty a forum in which to make headway on a wide range of issues, including the ones listed above. It is impossible to predict what the final collective agreement will look like, but I know it will be better than the one that 86 per cent of faculty rejected.
At times like this I often hear people say things like “nobody wins a strike” or “you never make back the money you lose when you go on strike.” This reveals a deep misunderstanding of what collective bargaining is, and what a collective agreement is.
A collective agreement is not an individual arrangement, like a contract between you and your phone company. It is something you build with your co-workers – past, present, and future. It is a covenant between generations. Workers bargaining today do so on the foundation built by those who came before them, and when they bargain, they do so not just for themselves, but for all the workers who will come after them.
This fall, college faculty did exactly that. Did their strike make a difference?
You bet it did. All victories do.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas
President, Ontario Public Service Employees Union