The strike began at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2017.
Normally it would have been another Monday back to school. Instead, it was the start of a five-week work stoppage – involving 12,000 college teachers – that would prove to be one of the longest and most disruptive Ontario has ever seen.
As a journalism student, I had a first-row seat to the drama. I picked up the story first thing in September for the Algonquin Times, after returning to school. Later, after the strike began and the paper could not operate, I launched an independent news site to continue covering the strike.
That site — Algonquin Timeless — is still up and has a lot of great material. Maybe I’m biased, but I think we had some of the best reporting on the strike anywhere in the province.
The strike, as long as it lasted, did not yield much for the union, OPSEU. As with every strike that’s ever happened in the college sector with academic staff, it only ended in arbitration. Arbitration is a process where a neutral third party hears from both sides of an issue and then renders a final, binding decision that cannot be appealed. (In this case, the union and the opposing bargaining agent, the College Employer Council, selected noted labour arbitrator and mediator William Kaplan, who also rendered the arbitration that settled the strike of 2006.)
OPSEU ended up getting what they really wanted from Kaplan’s award – he decreed that the new collective agreement, which is effective from 2017 to 2021, would include language for academic freedom. That wasn’t the only issue, but it was the moral pillar of the union’s bargaining agenda.
The long-term impact of the strike may not be fully known for some time. The union launched a charter challenge against the province’s back-to-work legislation. Meanwhile, the task force to examine staffing ratios in the college system – which was included in Kaplan’s arbitration – has been canceled by the Ford government. (The union is litigating that, too.)
Was it worth the 36 days on strike? Different members of faculty and students will say different things. Short term pain for long term gain? Or was the disruption too much? Does the academic freedom issue even benefit students? These are very subjective questions.
If history is any indicator, there likely will be more strikes to come. In a column published in the Algonquin Times last year, I examined the history of labour relations in the college sector and why the relationship between faculty and the colleges is so uniquely fraught:
The first sign of trouble surfaced around 1971, when academic employees began bargaining for their first collective agreement. At the time, college employees were considered civil servants and were not allowed to strike.
Bargaining was unproductive and a number of issues had to be sent to binding arbitration after an agreement couldn’t be reached.
The situation was so impaired, in 1988 the government commissioned Jeffrey Gandz to review the collective bargaining process to find out ways to improve it.
“The academic (bargaining) unit started off the way they would continue to negotiate throughout their history,” Gandz wrote in his report. “The first set of negotiations was protracted, although the seven-month time period may, in the light of subsequent negotiations, be considered breakneck speed!”