News

Student concerns remain, despite possible end to strike

By Allan Benner, The Standard

Picketing teachers speak with drivers coming onto Niagara College’s Welland campus on Tuesday afternoon where faculty members represented by the Ontario Public Service Employee Union have been on strike since Oct. 16. Laura Barton/Welland Tribune/Postmedia News

Picketing teachers speak with drivers coming onto Niagara College’s Welland campus on Tuesday afternoon where faculty members represented by the Ontario Public Service Employee Union have been on strike since Oct. 16. Laura Barton/Welland Tribune/Postmedia News

College students were already starting to worry after losing a few weeks of time in the classroom. 

Now, as their teachers represented by Ontario Public Service Employees Union enter the fifth week on picket lines, “that anxiety, that nervousness” students are feeling “has only been growing,” said Ryan Huckla, president of Niagara College’s student administrative council.

“The thing is, they’re looking for answers and there’s just so much uncertainty about the strike, and whether or not they will strike a deal,” he said. “Students are looking at their semester and they’re doing the math and saying, ‘I’ve been out of school now for four weeks.”

At the request of the College Employer Council, the Ontario Labour Relations Board has ordered that striking faculty members from the province’s 24 colleges vote on the council’s latest offer starting today at 9 a.m. and ending Thursday at 10 a.m.

If approved, faculty would start being paid by Friday, and students could return to class as early as next Tuesday, said College Employer Council bargaining team chair Sonia Del Missier, during a webcast intended for striking teachers, on Monday morning.

“This vote is your opportunity to end the strike now and get students and faculty back in the classroom as soon as possible,” she said. “We need to end this strike now — and get faculty and students back in the classroom.”

In an email, Niagara College communications manager Mike Wales confirmed that a yes vote from faculty “will bring our students and faculty back into the classroom by early next week and allow us to move forward with our semester completion plans.”

Huckla is eager to hear the results of the vote.

“It’s a huge kind of item that could possibly end the strike,” he said.

If the vote fails, he said students are “still looking at government intervention, saying we’re five weeks in, when is the government going to step in and get them back to work?”

While Huckla and students from across the province are hoping the votes this week will end the strike, he said they remain concerned about salvaging the remnants of the semester.

The local student council office included research about past strikes as part of a strike update posted on its website — ncsac.ca — pointing out that the college system has never lost a semester due to a strike, despite past strikes that lasted 28 days in 1989, 24 days in 1984, and 18 days in 2006.

Huckla said making up lost classes will likely mean students will lose their holiday break, and probably the spring break, too.

He said no one at Niagara College is talking about losing the semester.

“For the students to finish their academic semesters on time, or as close to on time as we can get, it’s those weeks that have to be compromised,” he said.

“The students are the real losers in this situation. It’s not fair to them.”

Meanwhile, Huckla pointed out that other workers have been impacted financially, too.

Huckla, however, said Niagara College administrators seem to be listening to the concerns related by the student union, while also keeping them informed about the process going on.

At noon on Thursday, a student group calling themselves “Get your ass to class” is planning a rally at college campuses across the province.

“Students from every campus in Ontario will be filling the hallways and classes of Ontario colleges, to show to everyone, we are ready to learn,” the organization says in an email sent to media outlets. “This is not a protest but a peaceful sit-in and demonstration of the power of the student voice. This event is aimed at delivering the message that politics should not stand in the way of our future.”

Although Niagara College’s student union is not officially sanctioning that action, Huckla said students are welcome to participate if they choose.

During the College Employer Council webcast, Del Missier assured teachers that the contract offer which OPSEU unanimously recommended against supporting “contains all of the items that we and the union team agreed upon.”

“Nothing has been removed, nothing has been added that will negatively impact faculty — these are positive gains,” she said.

“The union is telling you that this is a different offer than what we worked on with the union — one with concessions, one that will harm faculty. All I can say is this isn’t true.”

Highlights include a 7.75 per cent salary hike over four years to a maximum of $115,378, improved benefits, improvements for contract teachers, and support for a “government-led task force on the future of Ontario colleges, including staffing models and precarious work.”

OPSEU also issued a statement Monday morning, advising teachers “to stand strong and vote to reject” the college’s offer.

The union said the offer allows colleges to expand contract faculty without restriction, while avoiding paying equal pay for equal work, decreases full-time jobs, and does nothing to recognize the need for academic freedom for teachers.

Del Missier said the impasse that continues to stall negotiations “is completely frustrating for us and for you, but I know that our frustration is nothing compared with the frustration that 500,000 students out of class are feeling right now.”

ABenner@postmedia.com

 



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