Ontario Students Are Worried About Another University Strike

Contract staff at York University in Toronto are taking to the picket lines over precarious employment contracts.

Students across Ontario now worry that this could be the start of another province-wide strike.

University students are concerned that bigger problems could be looming ahead. Especially after the province-wide college strike that forced students out of class for five weeks in October 2017. Rising tensions between universities and their unions all over Ontario have students wondering what this could mean for their academic futures.

So, should we worry?

Representatives for York University contract workers echoed these concerns. A press conference on March 5 reveals that job security for contract staff has been a common issue for university faculty all over the province.

The current strike marks the second labour dispute at York in three years.

A strike was narrowly avoided at the University of Ottawa at the end of October, also over part-time staff contracts. In November, faculty at the University of Toronto moved in favour of a strike over the same issues, but an agreement was made in February. Support staff at Carleton University in Ottawa are currently on strike over pension conflicts. The question on every student’s mind: should we prepare for a massive university strike similar to the college fiasco?

“When I was first informed of the strike at Carleton, that’s exactly what went through my head,” says Kytan Cepovski, a second-year Criminology student at Carleton University. “I don’t want it turning out like the college strike. I don’t want to be faced with missed opportunities at work or seeing my family, waiting on answers from the university. As of right now it sits in the back of my mind that it could happen. But I am being positive that it will be resolved in the next 19 days, as they stated, without class cancellation.”

According to CUPE Local 3903 Vice President Julian Arend, a mass disruption of the same scale as the recent college strike cannot happen because the bargaining structure in the university sector is different than it is for colleges.

Localized Unions represent each university.

Meaning it’s highly unlikely that every local bargaining schedule will overlap at once.

However, Arend warns that we are not out of the woods just yet. He says if the aggressive and hostile approach to employees taken by the various universities does not change, there will be ongoing conflict and job action across the province for the foreseeable future.

“As long as universities feel like they can get away with abusing adjunct faculty with exploitative contracts and bleeding dry their graduate student workers with funding models that leave them struggling to feed themselves, the sector will continue to face regular disruptions,” Arend says. “We all wish this were not the case. But yes, tensions are certainly high and will remain so. Particularly given that the sector has been “signaled”—in their own words—about how to bargain by the provincial government.”

Know your rights.

York University remains open during the strike. Students must cross picket lines to continue their class work. Or risk losing their academic standing. Many have stormed Twitter in outrage:

Arend says it’s important for students to familiarize themselves with their rights in the event of a strike or lockout. And to demand recognition of those rights.

He says that most institutions, including York, will enact protections for students in case of a strike.

“These protections were initially enacted to prevent students from engaging in legal action against the administration for lost tuition as a result of losing all or part of their term. Although the stated reason was compassion,” says Arend. “Students cannot be penalized for not crossing physical or virtual picket lines. Accommodations must be made at the end of the strike or lockout to prevent deleterious effects on students.”

According to the list of protections, which apply to University students across Ontario, accommodations include alternative access to materials covered during the strike and extensions of deadlines upon the strike’s completion.

Know the issues.

A part-time professor at the University of Ottawa believes it’s not a coincidence that so many universities are going on strike. They say the issues that part-time professors are facing are not unique to any institution in particular. But they span across the province and even across Canada.

“Part time professors everywhere in Canada live with this insecurity, this struggle. We don’t know in advance how many classes, or which classes we will have to teach. For me, that’s a big issue,” says the professor, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We still need to catch up on stuff like equity of salary; that’s huge. A typical part-time professor doesn’t have the same medical coverage as a full-time professor. I have better coverage with a long-term contract, but a typical part-time professor has a basic, basic medical insurance coverage. We don’t have pension like full time professors, either.”

When the University of Ottawa was literally hours away from going on strike in October, the professor says it was because part-time professors were working on a contract that had expired two years ago.

The University of Ottawa was able to come to an agreement with their union and the expired collective agreement was renewed for five years.

Many part-time professors struggle with are job security, academic freedom, salary equity, and unpredictable class sizes and cancellations.

The professor says there are two types of contracts for part-time professors: a short-term contract in which the professor must reapply on a yearly basis, and a long-term contract that is good for three years. They say they worked on a short-term basis for 10 years and now they are on a long-term contract, which provides a little more job security. However, even after 13 years of work, there is still no offer of aa full-time position by the university.

“It’s cheap labour for the universities,” they say. “They don’t pay us more. I am still paid per class.”

The average course load for a full-time professor, they explain, is usually five courses a year. On their old contract, they were teaching seven classes a year. Now, they say their course load faces a reduction to six classes. And many part-time professors must do administrative work to compensate.

They also pointed out that universities going on strike is nothing new.

“Every time a group of part-time professors needs to sign a new collective agreement, the university tries to postpone the discussion,” the professor says. “And the result is always okay, let’s go on strike.”

What’s next?

Arend says that, as far as York University is concerned, all signs point to an extended work stoppage.

“The administration bureaucrats are refusing to meet with our bargaining team. And have refused to do so since late February,” he says. “They have demonstrated no interest in a quick resolution. They continue to ignore our priority proposals and continue to insist on a concessionary contract that guts key elements of our existing contract.”

At the end of the day, no, Ontario university students should not worry about a repeat of the province-wide college strike. But these issues affect faculty all over the province, and tensions are only increasing. Arend says students should prepare for the possibility of disruptions, and ensure they know what to do in the event of a strike or lockout at their university.

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.
Victoria St. Michael

Victoria St. Michael