For the past five weeks, teachers in Ontario’s College system have been on strike. Two days ago, their employer compelled them to vote on an offer that was summarily rejected. 95 percent of college teachers sent the deal packing by a margin of 86 percent. This is because the deal the Wynne Liberals provided was unfair, disingenuous, and did not address the root causes of the issues that college educators face.
If the Wynne Liberals valued our community college system, this statement from teachers should have sent a clear message: there are deep and abiding grievances with the status quo.
Instead, the Wynne Liberals tabled back-to-work legislation, making a mockery of the collective bargaining process. The employer now has no reason to settle this dispute, and college teachers have little reason to believe this government has their interests, or the interests of Ontario’s students, at heart. An inflamed situation has now been made immeasurably worse.
Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have taken a different position. Ms. Horwath and the ONDP have tabled a motion to block this legislation. As a Candidate for the ONDP in Ottawa Centre, I’m proud of the courage our party has shown in this moment.
Unlike the Wynne Liberals, who justify back-to-work legislation as a means to help students, the ONDP has called time. We want this dispute to end with a fair deal, because a fair deal has the interests of students and the interest of the province at heart. And there are ample reasons why that fair deal is necessary.
I’ve walked the picket line with teachers at Algonquin College like ONDP activists have elsewhere. What I’ve heard has been shocking.
College faculty are striking not for themselves. They recognize that employing part-time faculty to provide full-time roles means that teachers do not have the time to dedicate to provide a healthy and holistic learning environment for students. 72% of teachers at Algonquin College are part-time workers. As such, they are only compensated for time spent in class, meaning that course preparation, marking, and all administration are done on a volunteer basis. This is not how a college education system should be run.
College teachers, unlike university teachers, also have no academic freedom to decide the content of their courses, the course materials used, and what assignments are given. The front-line teaching staff may not have final say over the material they teach. Moreover, there is significant pressure to prioritize evaluations that discourage writing, so grading is done by computer. This does not properly prepare students for life after college and leaves our students short changed in receiving their education.
What does this mean for students, whose tuition fees have doubled after fifteen years of Liberal governments in Ontario? It means the quality of their learning is hurt by the austerity pushed on their teachers. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, plain and simple.
Of course, austerity budgeting in the college sector doesn’t apply to everyone. Back in January, college Cheryl Jensen, Algonquin College’s President, asked for a 50% pay hike (to $445k /year, up from $321k/ year now). Among many fine perks, Jenson drives a Lexus sedan on the Algonquin College dime. Her colleagues in senior administration recently earned raises of 20%, which more than what many Algonquin College teachers earn in an entire year.
So, when we ask what’s prolonging this strike, let’s put the blame where it belongs: politicians who enable a campus elite instead of investing in those who make campuses work.
Our province deserves better. On June 7, 2018, voters can elect a government that will fix our post-secondary system, and invest in our public services. Until then, we must support college teachers demanding fairness, and stand up to those who maintain an unfair status quo.
Joel Harden is the ONDP Candidate for Ottawa Centre.