Strike photo

Both sides feel vindicated by arbitrator’s decision on Ontario colleges dispute

Arbitration ends stalemate between faculty and colleges, which resulted in five-week strike

Both sides in the recent college strike said that they came out ahead in the dispute settlement by the government-appointed arbitrator on Dec. 20.

The Ontario government had appointed the arbitrator after the five-week long faculty strike ended with back-to-work legislation Nov. 19.

The arbitrator decided on several issues, including academic freedom and wage increases, while relegating other disputes to a province-wide task force.

Nicole Zwiers, vice-chair of the faculty bargaining team and spokesperson for the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union, said that the language around academic freedom – one of the main sticking points in the dispute – was a major victory.

“Is it the best academic freedom language that is in existence and possible? I would say not. Is it very good? I would say yes. And to have it for the first time ever in an article is the real win here,” she said.

Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council, said the decision was fine since the colleges were not opposed to academic freedom but were concerned about “academic control.”

Curriculum design could not be handed over to professors alone, he added, as it should be a collaborative process, involving multiple stakeholders, which is overseen by the college. He said that colleges worked with not only professors but also accreditation bodies and program advisory committees, while staying aligned with ministry regulations.

“For us it was about who controls the programming, who controls the curriculum,” Sinclair said. “And so that was what was at issue for us, because it struck the very core of the mission of our institutions.”

The arbitrator’s verdict on academic freedom has more similarity with the language used in OPSEU’s proposal than the CEC’s Nov. 6 offer, which was resoundingly rejected by faculty.

On the issue of salaries, the arbitrator sided with the CEC by providing faculty a 7.75 per cent pay increase over four years, which was part of the initial offer to the union.

Although OPSEU had demanded a nine per cent pay increase over three years, Zwiers said that wages were not their primary concern.

As a result of the arbitration award, full-time faculty will be given a one-time payment of $900 while partial-load faculty will get $450.

Province-wide task force to be formed

Several contentious issues between the two parties will now be decided by a government-appointed, province-wide task force, which will include representatives from the colleges, faculty and students. Staffing ratios was one of the main disputes between the two parties.

Throughout the strike, the union consistently asked for a 50:50 ratio between full-time and partial-load faculty. According to Sinclair, about 34 per cent faculty are full-time staff and 20 per cent are partial-load, while the rest are part-timers. Partial-load faculty teach between six and 12 hours a week, while part-timers teach for under six hours.

However, Zwiers said that the union has doubts about the CEC figures and hoped that the task force would be able to provide clarity.

“As you may recall, in the media (during the strike), we were discussing different numbers,” Zwiers said. “And part of the problem with that is that we don’t have reliable data, and so we recognize that part of this task force (mandate) has to be around what data we can rely on first and foremost to see where we are right now.”

Zwiers also said that the task force would have to look at tying the hiring of more full-time faculty to increased government funding for colleges.

The CEC’s Sinclair said that he didn’t believe a 50:50 ratio was required, but that hiring more full-time faculty would require additional funding from the province.

“Staffing is directly tied to the funding you get from both tuition and the government,” he said. “Ontario colleges on a per-student basis have the lowest funding (in Canada). That does inform you about some of your decisions, and each college has to balance its budget.”