Part-time Support Settlement ... Full-time Faculty Contract Talks Rather Shaky

A scene from the faculty strike of 2017 – a labour situation with issues that are unresolved to this day.

It’s a “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” situation.

The good news is that there is “partial labour peace” among Ontario’s two dozen colleges, following last month’s establishment of a new contract between the managerial realm of the schools and unionized part-time support staff.

“Support staff” include such employees as facilities/maintenance workers, clerical staff and technicians (among others) – that is, anyone who is not an administrator or a teaching faculty member.

In mid-August, after months of negotiation, these Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) members ratified a contract with the College Employers Council (CEC, representing the management of the province’s colleges).

It is a three-year contract, retroactive to February 1, 2021, bearing a one percent pay raise in each year of the contract (the maximum allowed under public sector wage restraints imposed by the provincial government).

In an OPSEU media release, union bargaining team chair Lisa Lavigne said, “Not only did we push back on all 24 concessions the employer brought to the table, but we also made significant gains, particularly in terms of job security. This is exactly what we needed in the light of the extensive lay-offs and hours-reductions our members took after COVID ... They deserve the best possible agreement, and I believe we delivered it.”

BUT ...

The bad news is that there is “partial labour peace” among Ontario’s two dozen colleges, given the failure, to-date, of talks aimed at setting a new contract between the 24 colleges and their 14,000 unionized full-time faculty members.

The current pact between the CEC and the professors, counsellors and librarians represented by OPSEU is set to expire on September 30 ... and summer-long negotiations have, as yet, failed to achieve a meeting-of-the-minds on many of the contentious issues between the two sides.

OPSEU alleges that much of the preliminary negotiation period was futile because the CEC refused to simply put its proposals on the table for discussion; while the CEC responded that it was using those initial sessions for fact-finding and to research some of OPSEU’s proposals.

With the clock ticking down towards the current contract’s expiration, the CEC did – in mid-September – put an offer on the table. It includes the aforementioned, provincially-limited one percent pay increase per year; a few other language changes; and a proposal to create task forces and round tables to discuss and resolve some major issues (including workload calculation) by February, 2023.

The “take it or leave it” phrasing of the CEC’s offer, however, apparently irked OPSEU. Its negotiating team commented: “The employer’s offer of settlement contains a number of concessions for faculty, and limited enhancements. Further, the faculty team was told that if we did not recommend this offer to members, they would return to previously tabled concessions ... and that they retain the right to seek more to address their areas of concern. This is, simply, a scare tactic. Offering a settlement that does not adequately address any faculty demands, while simultaneously threatening previously tabled concessions if such an inadequate offer is not accepted, is a tactic that we recognize from many previous rounds of negotiations with this employer. It is also one that has not had the desired effect of preventing faculty from achieving gains. Such a tactic is also not in alignment with the CEC team’s stated goal of fostering an ongoing positive relationship between the faculty union and management. The tone of the CEC team’s comments has shifted into much more aggressive rhetoric this week, and risks misrepresenting the history of this round of negotiations. To be clear, the faculty team has not refused to engage in discussions. We have provided various information that has been requested. We are also fully willing to discuss our proposals. It is also a misrepresentation for the CEC to claim that negotiations would be protracted and unsuccessful if faculty pursue our proposals rather than the settlement offer they tabled ... that is fear-mongering.”

SCENE ANALYSIS: There is probably another reason – and an understandable one – for the union’s reticence about one element of the CEC’s offer: namely, its promise to establish “task forces and round tables” to study and resolve many outstanding issues ...

... Because several of them have been outstanding for years upon years, and the union believed that it had a commitment to have them addressed as part of its previous contract.

In the fall of 2017, faculty at the province’s two dozen colleges went on strike for five weeks – and never did, in fact, resolve the issues associated with that work-stoppage.

The strike was concluded by the imposition of a back-to-work order implemented by the provincial Ministry of Colleges and Universities, under the then-Liberal provincial government.

As part of that legislative solution, the ministry pledged to appoint an independent task force to study the unresolved issues between the CEC and OPSEU, and come up with recommendations to be included in their new agreement.

And that task force was appointed, but was only in existence for a few months ... until the Liberals were defeated in a 2018 election, replaced by the Conservatives of Premier Doug Ford. On his first day in office (June of 2018), Ford dissolved the college task force, thus eliminating any possible chance to resolve the outstanding issues between the CEC and OPSEU.

So, the CEC’s current proposal to “defer discussion of these issues, to allow them to be studied for the next few years”? OPSEU may well perceive that as an empty promise that it has heard before, and that it is not prepared to accept.

OPSEU has countered the CEC’s offer with a proposal to bring third-party assistance into the negotiations. Again, from a union website: “(W)e remain committed to working toward a settlement together, and agree with the CEC that bargaining effectively requires a shared understanding of language, context, scope, and – we would add- –purpose. Based on our exchanges thus far, we do not believe that either team is able to reach that understanding in the five remaining scheduled days of bargaining, without outside assistance. Therefore, in the spirit of moving us forward without escalating tensions, we acknowledged that we have a labour relations problem, and we proposed a labour relations solution. The faculty team invited the CEC to join us in pre-conciliation mediation with an independent mediator for a fixed period of time with the goals of focusing both teams, and sorting out a pathway to bargaining a negotiated settlement. We further proposed that both teams consent to not taking any additional steps toward conciliation or other labour escalation until that time period had elapsed. We also proposed an independent mediator who is familiar with the Ontario college sector, has extensive experience in provincial and federal public sector bargaining mediation, and who has been acceptable to both parties in the past in seeking to achieve a settlement.”

On September 21, the CEC described its response to OPSEU's idea of mediation: "We asked if the (union) team is proposing mediation with all the contentious issues set aside to advance bargaining; otherwise, mediation cannot be of any assistance. As we’ve repeatedly told the team, their current long list of demands includes language the colleges could never agree to. As we await response on how OPSEU sees mediation taking us forward, bargaining is on hold."

Stay tuned.