College support staff: Fighting for future generations

(From OPSEU website)
Karrie Ouchas, In Solidarity

Think back to the days when you attended college. Other than your fellow students and the teachers, your interactions with support staff were likely limited. Yet, every day a warm lunch was ready for you, IT folks were available when the computers stopped working the way they should and the building was always clean and well maintained. The classroom equipment appeared when needed, there was always someone available to help you with your loan application, class scheduling or to help students with special needs. These people are the unsung heroes of the colleges. These people are the backbone of the post-secondary education system.

More than 8,000 College of Applied Arts and Technology (CAAT) support staff went on strike for 18 days in September 2011. The strike ended with the ratification of a new contract with a resounding 87 per cent in favour of the tentative deal, successfully fending off concessions that would have further eroded job security.

“The last strike we had was in 1979. A lot of that strike had the same underlying issues that we face today; the lack of respect for the work we do in the colleges today,” said Rod Bemister, OPSEU Bargaining Chair. The strike was about maintaining the current working conditions, fighting off the numerous concessions the employer wanted and eliminating a two-tier system.

Over the past three decades, colleges have increased the number of part-time support staff hired. This allows colleges to pay lower wages and to avoid paying benefits. The number of good full-time jobs is being reduced and the work is undervalued. In this round of bargaining, the employer wanted many concessions and claw backs that directly threatened job security. The employer also wanted different contract language/terms for new hires, creating a two-tier system.

Another obstacle faced by the bargaining team was the changes made to the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act that highly favour college employers. Some of the employer-friendly amendments included:

  • The ability to force a contract vote within 15 days before the expiry of the Collective Agreement
  • The ability to decrease the bargaining cycle
  • The ability to have support staff cross the picket line and go to work; and
  • The ability to impose terms and conditions of work after the expiry date of the contract

This was the first time support staff bargained under the changes to this legislation; CAAT Academic bargained under these legislative changes in 2010. The employer forced a contract vote, which resulted in a poor offer being accepted with support of only 51 per cent of the voting members.

“We believe, generally, that the students and parents were supportive once they understood the reasons for the strike,” says Bemister. “The message to the students who were impacted is that we stood up and fight for our jobs, which are good jobs, and rejecting conditions that threaten those jobs. This fight must go beyond just college support staff but to every workplace across the province. The reason for that is simple. When we allow conditions which take away from the conditions of work we currently have, the prospect of graduating and attaining a good job when they complete their education becomes diminished.”