College strike: Faculty union says colleges rejected its last-ditch offer
Picket-line fires burn bright at Fanshawe College. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)
Fanshawe College students who expected to finish their semester 10 days before Christmas could be sweating it out into the new year if the strike in Ontario’s 24 colleges drags on much longer.
London-based Fanshawe, one of the province’s largest colleges, has extended the first term by a week as the strike affecting more than 500,000 students provincewide continues into its fourth week.
But with no end to the impasse in sight, Fanshawe isn’t ruling out pushing first-term classes into the new year — another sign the strike could cost students a semester for the first time.
“We have prepared a flexible semester completion plan,” Fanshawe president Peter Devlin said Tuesday. “We do acknowledge . . . the possibility that the term could extend into January. However, until the strike is over, we can’t finalize our . . . plan.”
Fanshawe has extended the first semester to Dec. 22 from Dec. 15.
But with voting on the colleges’ latest offer set through late next week after they forced a vote, bypassing the union that recommended rejecting the offer, another week of classes — maybe more — appears sure to be wiped from the student calendar.
Devlin said he hopes the strike will end soon, but wouldn’t specify at what point the term could be extended into 2018. He said striking faculty need to be consulted before any plan is rolled out.
Across Southwestern Ontario, tens of thousands of students have been sidelined by the strike at three colleges in seven cities. They include Fanshawe, which has satellite campuses in St. Thomas, Woodstock and Simcoe, Lambton College in Sarnia and St. Clair College in Windsor and Chatham.
Tuesday, the College Employer Council, which bargains on behalf of the 24 schools , and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) sat down with an Ontario Labour Relations Board mediator, one day after the council said it wanted to force a vote on its latest offer, bypassing union negotiators.
OPSEU represents the 12,000 striking faculty, including instructors, librarians and counsellors.
The vote is scheduled between Nov. 14 and 16 by electronic ballot.
Talks between OPSEU and the council broke down Monday, with the council asking the labour board to schedule a vote on its offer.
OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said the two sides had been “very, very close” to a deal before the council contacted the labour board.
“We’re at a bit of a loss as to understand why they have gone and taken really the extraordinary step of going to the (board) and looking for a vote,” he said. “It’s caught everybody off guard.”
In a statement, the council said it had “proposed a possible solution” to the union to end the strike, but declined to comment on specifics.
OPSEU fired back, accusing the council of rejecting a last-ditch resolution it tabled Monday night after talks broke off.
“The faculty bargaining team put forward a new proposal aimed at settling the strike immediately,” OPSEU bargaining chairperson JP Hornick said in a statement. “Council rejected that proposal outright.”
The union’s main point of contention has how much input college instructors have into how courses are taught and evaluated, said Hornick.
The council’s final offer is a step backward, Hornick said: “(Their) offer contains concessions that undermined everything we had negotiated and agreed to.”
Sonia Del Missier, who chairs the colleges’ bargaining team, said earlier this week the council had addressed union concerns about job security, wages and academic freedom.
Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews of London, the deputy premier, has said the government wants to see students return to the classroom as quickly as possible.
Even with a proposed resolution on the table, the council said it’s going ahead with vote preparation.
Both sides must agree on a plan for the board-administered vote, which the union said could needlessly prolong the strike for weeks.
The forced vote isn’t a common move in labour relations, said one analyst.
“It’s incredibly rare in collective bargaining,” said Johanna Weststar, a management and organizational studies professor at Western University.
“This won’t improve the relationship between the two sides . . . If the vote is no, the employer has essentially exhausted all their tools. The only tool then is to be back at the bargaining table.”
Weststar said back-to-work legislation is still a real possibility, but the province likely will wait for the result of the vote before it acts. “It’s a political hot potato for the government,” she said.
It’s a situation that might not work out so well for the colleges, said one labour historian.
“The decision of the colleges to call for a vote through the labour board without the union is an indication they are playing hardball,” said Laurel MacDowell of the University of Toronto.
In an email, MacDowell said the legal provision was brought in by an anti-union government and plays to the idea that union leaders are agitators who manipulate workers.
“If the colleges think a direct vote through the board without any input from the union will work, they will get a surprise and it means they are fighting hard against the union,” she said.
- with files from the Canadian Press