A process designed to fail?

November 24, 2017   ·   0 Comments

HALF A MILLION students who finally returned to classes Tuesday must have been wondering what, if anything, had really been accomplished in the five weeks they spent effectively being locked out of Ontario’s post-secondary education system.

As we see it, the students were victims of an ill-advised process that must be reformed, and soon.

Well aware of the need to keep organized labour reasonably happy and wanting to avoid a repetition of the difficulties encountered by imposing a settlement on the province’s other teachers, the Liberal government tried to come up with a process that would be better than simply allowing the unionized faculty members at the province’s colleges to bargain with each college.

Imposition of province-wide bargaining was seen as simplifying things by having one set of negotiations replace a plethora.

However, it also meant a form of professional-level bargaining (with high-priced lawyers) by a team that likely had no instructions on how to modify any position advanced during the talks.

In other words, the bargaining was bound to fail, and the process adopted was designed to work only if it succeeded.

At the end of the day, following the overwhelming defeat of the colleges’ final offer, the government had to produce legislation ordering an end to the strike and a new process that apparently involves another attempt at mediation followed by arbitration.

That’s clearly what should have happened much sooner, but the government’s response to that suggestion from the opposition Conservatives was that the legislated process didn’t allow them to move in the absence of talks ending in a deadlock with no hope of an agreement being reached voluntarily.

It seems that the only thing the three political parties have agreed on is that the strike hurt the students.  Meanwhile, the colleges’ fall semesters will apparently be extended to mid-January and we expect something similar will happen to the delayed spring semesters.

It would seem that the only way of preventing a recurrence would be to change the process, perhaps by setting a two-week limit on any future strike action. Although such a change would be opposed by the New Democrats, it would at least leave the students in a far better position than they are now while leaving the parties no worse off.

A request by Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn for feedback from striking faculty members produced a flood that portrayed problems at both sides of the bargaining table.

In his column Monday, Mr. Cohn said the responses showed there are “bigger lessons to be learned from the impasse: Our college system is ailing, and the concerns of teachers are symptomatic of a deeper malaise.”

Advising Star readers that the messages were worth “reading and heeding,” he said a common theme was that the 24 college presidents “have no business contracting out the heavy lifting of labour relations to a belligerent employer’s council that relies on high-priced lawyers to deploy bully-boy tactics. Province-wide bargaining is a mismatch for colleges of different sizes and specialties, and the employer’s demand for a forced vote on their final offer only provoked union members, prolonging the strike by at least a week.”

One respondent, Seneca College instructor Howard Doughty, said the dispute merely magnified an “existential crisis” facing the college’s “discount department store model’ . . . in which the curriculum is commodified (and) students are redefined as ‘customers.”

Another, Jeff Short, lamented the “mutually assured destruction,” but added: “If this strike had not happened, the dismantling of the system would have continued in secrecy.”

Teacher David Keindel said part of the problem is a lack of provincial funding which has led to what he calls “university creep. … Make no mistake, the only reason colleges are blurring the lines and adding degrees is financial.”


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