Back to work, but for how long?

While it facilitated students’ return to classrooms, the Ontario government’s response to the college strike was an unsatisfactory approach to resolving the labour dispute

Back to work, but for how long?

The five-week-long college faculty strike, which brought over 12,000 workers to the picket lines, has come to an abrupt end after just over a month of grueling standstill. On October 16, employees from 24 colleges, collectively represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), went on strike to fight for at least 50 per cent of faculty members to work full-time and to improve job security. The College Employer Council, which bargains on behalf of the college administrations, said that OPSEU’s demands would cost $250 million, which would result in thousands of lost contract positions. As a result, both sides dug their feet into the sand, refusing to come to an agreement.

What ultimately broke the tension was the Ontario government’s decision to swoop in with back-to-work legislation — thereby sending both workers and students back to the classroom. Although this undoubtedly came as a relief to many students previously left in limbo, we cannot in good faith praise the province’s actions without critically examining their consequences. The fact is that the conflict between college administrations and faculty is far from resolved, and the invocation of back-to-work legislation was but a band-aid solution to the underlying struggles that pushed employees to the picket lines in the first place.

It is true that, in stopping the strike, the province has at least temporarily alleviated the concerns of the many students who suffered substantially as a result of missing classes. While college administrations and faculty played tug-of-war, half a million students across the province had their educations abruptly suspended or halted altogether. Over 1,000 students at UTM and UTSC have also been affected, given the joint programs the university hosts in conjunction with colleges in the Greater Toronto Area.

While it is encouraging that the province plans to provide students with compensation for the coursework they missed, there is no tangible way to turn back the clock. A recent press release by the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario outlined the dilemma students now face: either call it a wash and bear the temporal and financial burden of a lost semester, or try to cram five weeks worth of course material into the little time that remains before end of session. Some colleges have suggested that classes will extend into winter break, ridding students of time that might otherwise have been spent with family and friends over the holidays.

International students were put in a particularly vulnerable position in this regard, given that their very ability to remain in Canada is often contingent on their ability to continue their studies. The strike’s indeterminate end time resulted in a scramble to extend study permits, which likely resulted in substantial stress for many students. Now, though other students have the option of taking time off to re-evaluate, some international students will be forced to remain enrolled in order to maintain their immigration status. This is on top of the financial costs associated with having to stay longer than necessary in a foreign country.

There is therefore a clear need to prevent the negative repercussions of strikes on students and other affected parties, as opposed to merely trying to remedy them after the fact. What this requires is long-term, sustainable support for workers, as well as meaningful negotiation mechanisms. By abruptly bringing an end to the conflict, Ontario has merely postponed its resolution.

Strikes are actions of last resort that result from logjam in the collective bargaining process. When workers have exhausted other options, taking to the picket lines may be the only reasonable way to push administrations to step up to the plate. In this case, it is reasonable to assume that the tensions that brought faculty to the point of no return will come to a head again in the future.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Local 3902 Unit 1, which represents teaching assistants among others at U of T, went on strike in 2015. The dispute’s ultimate conclusion was unsatisfactory for many people. In a move that some workers felt was inadequate, the union voted to stop striking and enter binding arbitration — a process that ultimately favoured the administration. Meanwhile, the underlying issues that culminated in the strike were left to fester until partially addressed in 2016, when the university eventually acquiesced to some of the union’s demands. Today, negotiations are ongoing between the administration and Unit 1, along with Unit 3, which represents sessional lecturers and other academic instructors and assistants. Unit 3 recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate, citing familiar concerns about precarious job security and lack of paths to permanent employment, though a tentative agreement with the administration has now been reached.

The fact that the Ontario government ultimately sent students back to school also does not absolve it of its share of the blame for ongoing problems between administrations and workers. Despite the government’s recent labour law reforms, as reported by CBC Newsabout 80 per cent of college faculty members are part-time workers, and colleges and universities continue to rely on part-time staff. The province has yet to put forth any substantial remedies to the precarious conditions often associated with this type of employment — conditions in which contract workers are being paid less than their full-time colleagues and have far fewer benefits.

It might also be argued that the province’s ability to invoke such measures comes at the expense of ensuring labour negotiations are as meaningful and genuine as possible. While both OPSEU and the colleges are responsible for ensuring staff have adequate working conditions, college administrations are the ones that directly collect fees from students, meaning they bear the additional responsibility of ensuring their educations are not unduly disrupted. With the cloud of back-to-work legislation hanging over their heads, college administrations are not given enough incentive to bargain in good faith with their faculty, putting workers at a clear disadvantage in the process.

It’s a good thing that students are back in class — but considering the strategy taken to get them there, the ends don’t justify the means. Negotiations between administration and faculty must continue in the spirit of securing a long-term, sustainable solution to this conflict. The province also has a responsibility to create conditions that are conducive to meaningful negotiation instead of waiting until the eleventh hour to take action.

Meanwhile, it would serve the U of T administration well to revisit its responsibilities to students and employees alike. Hopefully what happened with the college strike has not set precedent for how labour negotiations will be resolved in the future, particularly in the event that another strike threatens to break out at the university.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email

What’s in a mandate?

The threshold of popular support for controversial advocacy remains obscure

What’s in a mandate?

VOTER TURNOUT RATES in the annual University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections have fallen well below what most would consider representative numbers. It was not until Brighter UofT, last year’s victorious executive slate, that election results reflected the participation of more than ten per cent of eligible voters. Granted, the university is the largest in the country and is attended by a significant number of commuters, a group whose voter participation is subject to several barriers.

The UTSU exists in order to provide some vital services to, and lobby on behalf of over 56,000 undergraduates. With their slim electoral support in mind, the extent to which the union should advocate in tendentious arenas is unclear.

For this reason, the union’s equity portfolio has drawn criticism from several students this past year. Example of this criticism are the grievances filed with the union’s Executive Review Committee over the vice president, equity and Social Justice & Equity Commission’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus.

That the union’s equity arm has expressed support for BDS is beside the point. Much of the furor over the legitimacy of the movement’s claims, objects, and methods is overblown if not entirely unwarranted. The movement has gained impressive support on campus without the union’s help. Over 125 faculty members signed a petition endorsing the movement’s call for divestment; additionally, BDS has been endorsed at other Canadian universities.

It is not the nature of the Commission, or the vice president’s priorities that should spark criticism. It is that the union’s equity portfolio flouts established processes and fails to account for its slim mandate when it engages in controversial activism.

Certainly, there exist systemic issues in our global, national, and institutional communities that reinforce inequitable dynamics in many forms, whether the issue is anti-Black racism, Islamaphobia, trans- and homophobia, or ableism — the list goes on. That is to say, there is no coherent argument for why equity advocacy doesn’t belong on campus.

Rather, the issue at the core of this past year’s conflicts over BDS is that equity advocacy is fundamentally at odds with populist democracy. Equity necessarily challenges the status quo and those who support it. How, then, can the union reconcile its obligations to be broadly representative, and to end up on the right side of history? The necessary threshold of community support for the union to stake an official equity position is unclear, aggravating the disagreement.

This dissonance metastasizes throughout student politics on campus and is clearly embedded in the continuing issue of BDS advocacy. Many of the students who filed grievances, and others who have expressed trepidation over the decision to wade into a discussion of BDS, pay membership fees to the UTSU and are justified when they feel unrepresented.

The situation seems unavoidable. There will always be disagreements between the electorate and its representatives on what constitutes appropriate action, particularly as it pertains to equity. This is not reason enough to suggest that the union should rein in its equity work. It might be reason enough though to re-examine the internal accountability mechanisms at play — a suggestion proposed earlier this year recommended that events organized by the vice president, equity be subject to the approval of the Social Justice & Equity Commission. The suggestion failed at the board level.

The current vice president, equity has resolutely refused to address the BDS grievances, declining to respond to, or attend a meeting with the complainants and the grievance officer, which is required by the union’s by-laws. The equity mandate seems to exist in a category unto itself while resting on the same dubious foundational support as the rest of the union’s work — there is little to no oversight or accountability.

Affordances to the lack of real democratic directive can be made for lobbying the government for access to education, increasing mental health resources on campus, and other elemental facets of student union advocacy. Whether or not they can be made in this case, or others like it, when controversy is deeply rooted remains unsure.