'Hail Mary pass': Vote that could end Ontario college strike starts Tuesday
If the deal is accepted, the earliest classes could resume is Nov. 21. If the deal is rejected it’s likely the province will intervene.
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The strike that has cancelled classes for hundreds of thousands of college students for four weeks will last at least another as a forced-contract vote takes place.
The vote, requested by the College Employer Council, begins Tuesday morning and wraps up Thursday, with 12,000 faculty voting on the updated offer on the table before talks broke off and the college took the step of asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board for the one-time measure.
At that time, and after four days of marathon bargaining, the two sides had agreed on the contentious issue of full-time staffing ratios, agreeing to a provincial task force to study the issue, which is included in the offer instructors will vote on.
On salary, the union and colleges were within one-quarter of a per cent. They could not, however, find common ground on academic freedom, the major sticking point that remains.
The vote will be conducted online or by phone, and requires approval by 50 per cent plus one, of all those who vote. (That means if all 12,000 vote, 6,001 would have to cast ballots in favour for it to pass.) Results will be available Thursday afternoon.
If faculty approve it, classes would likely resume by Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week.
If it is rejected — and it already has been by the union’s bargaining team — then it is expected, given the length of the strike, that the provincial government will have to intervene fairly quickly with back-to-work legislation.
J.P. Hornick, who heads the college bargaining team for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said “there are serious concerns and questions about the ways the electronic vote will be conducted, and I know that OPSEU has raised these” with the labour board.
The union is urging its members to reject the offer, saying it wants the colleges to return to the bargaining table.
In a recent memo to members, it said the strike will be over soon regardless, and that approving the offer is the “worst outcome.”
“Whatever way the strike is resolved, the government has made clear it will step in so that the semester is not lost,” says a memo to members.
“… It would be nonsensical to vote for this bad offer when a better resolution is just around the corner. This is the time to press on vigorously, not to capitulate.”
However, some faculty have grown weary of getting by on strike pay for more than a month, and several have emailed the Star saying they have lost more in wages to date than they will gain through their next contract.
Others, however, say the academic freedom issue is too important and they need to stand strong on the picket lines. Hornick called the vote reaching a settlement “through coercion rather than negotiation.”
The forced vote does present risks for both sides.
Maurice Mazerolle of Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, called the vote something like “the ‘hail Mary’ pass for management.”
Mazerolle, an expert in labour-management relations, said for the union, a yes vote puts them at risk, and the “bargaining committee normally resigns.
“But if members reject it, that’s it for management.”
After a strike has dragged on, however, different factors come into play. “All the membership knows is ‘I’ve got no money coming in, and I’ve been on strike for three or four weeks’ … that’s the other thing management is counting on — they are counting on people voting with their paycheques.”
Also, he said, is academic freedom “something you really want to pound the streets for? Probably not. And it’s not an issue you can negotiate at the bargaining table. It’s too complicated” and requires a lot of research.
“You need a joint task or a committee to deal with it through the life of the contract.”
Rafael Gomez, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, said the employer is taking a chance with the vote, but believes the lengthy strike is a sign “that the college system has outgrown its bargaining structure” where one body, the College Employer Council, negotiates for all institutions.
“There was a homogeneity to the colleges 50 years ago when they started, in terms of their size, their assortment of degrees they were offering, and over time, they’ve diverged.”
He thinks a tiered bargaining — with schools divided by size and range of programming and other criteria — is worth considering.
He called the forced vote “a desperation ploy on the part of the employer.”
David Doorey, a labour and employment expert at York University, said the forced vote can “poison the bargaining climate” if their offer is rejected, and create divisions among staff if it is approved.
It can, he added, “be an effective divide and conquer strategy.”
“I think the parties understand that the threat of back to work legislation is there if this stoppage drags on much longer and this will shape their strategies,” said Doorey.
“Given that it appears the parties are close, there’s a good possibility that a failed final offer vote could lead to an agreement to refer the outstanding issues to arbitration, which would be the outcome always if legislation is introduced. But that is by no means certain.”
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