Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ontario Faculty Strike

Faculty at colleges in Ontario have gone out on strike, highlighting again how higher education is at the forefront of the North American labor movement today--here's the coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Karen Birchard:
About 150,000 students at Ontario's 24 colleges of applied arts and technology are out of the classroom after their professors walked off their jobs early Tuesday, and some students are wondering whether the strike will prevent them from graduating on time.

Negotiations between the professors, whose last contract expired in August, and the colleges broke down late Monday night after days of intense talks conducted under a media blackout.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents some 9,100 full-time faculty members at the colleges, says the central issue is education quality. However, the colleges say they've offered a good deal, with salary increases that would make the professors the highest-paid college faculty members in the country and with no additional workload.

"We thought the offer was reasonable," said Rick Miner, who is chair of the presidents' committee of the Association of Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology of Ontario, and president of Seneca College, the largest college in Canada.

Mr. Miner said the offer included a 12.6-percent increase over four years that would bring the top teaching salary to about $83,000 and $87,000 (U.S.) for faculty members with additional duties.

The average class size at the colleges, which offer two-, three-, and four-year vocationally oriented programs, is 28 students," Mr. Miner said, "and that's lower than class sizes at universities."

He added that the concerns of parents and students about the strike coming late in the academic year were understandable and said he hoped that those who were scheduled to graduate this spring would be able to do so.

The union has held out for smaller classes and more full-time faculty members so each student would get more one-on-one time with teachers.

"It's a clash over quality education," said Randy Robinson, a spokesman for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union. Most of the courses at the colleges are highly technical and hands-on, he said, and faculty members also provide a mentoring role. "The sardine-can approach doesn't work."

Students are worried about the prospect of losing a semester's work. "We're angry," said Matt Jackson, president of the College Student Alliance, which represents a majority of the students. "It's frustrating. Our major concern is to get students back to the classroom."

Mr. Jackson predicted that if the strike lasted longer than a few days, there would be a serious ripple effect on the province's economy. "Business and industry are expecting 44,000 college graduates to start working in June," he said.

A strike that lasts more than 10 class days might put last-year students in jeopardy of not completing their requirements before they are supposed to start work. In addition, tens of thousands of students had plans to start summer jobs in May, and they are worried that they'll lose those jobs if the semester is extended. College administrators say they are working on a contingency plan that would allow students to make up for lost time even if the strike drags on.

The students' group is urging parents, employers, and students to e-mail politicians, the union and the colleges to tell "them to do anything in their power to get both bargaining teams back to the table and get an agreement as soon as possible." It has set up links on its Web site to make such contacts easier.

"The response has been very heavy," Mr. Jackson said. "The site crashed Tuesday morning, and we had to increase our bandwidth to accommodate the number of users."

Many of the students who attend the colleges have had firsthand experience with labor disputes in Ontario that affected their education. They lost time in grade school because of a sweeping teachers' strike in 1997, and many saw limits on extracurricular activities in high school because teachers wouldn't agree to do any after-school supervision during "work to rule" campaigns in recent years. The College Student Alliance says both sides need to remember that students are paying "to receive a quality postsecondary education."

Ontario's college system is unique in Canada. It provides focused employment training and enrolls many university graduates who take supplementary college courses after earning their degree. The courses are developed in partnership with thousands of businesses and industries. In addition, every college has a partnership agreement with local universities. During the strike, most campuses are remaining open to students so they can use academic, health, and recreational facilities. Administrators are advising them to keep up their course work. Night classes that are taught by faculty members not represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union are continuing on many campuses, as are some classes taught by university professors, who are represented by a different union.

College faculty members in Ontario went on strike in 1984 and 1989 for 18 and 20 days, respectively. Those strikes took place early in the school year and students were able to make up for lost classroom time.

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