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The Aftermath of the Ontario College Strikes

The Aftermath of the Ontario College Strikes

In October of last year, Ontario College instructors collaborated in what turned out to be the longest strike the province has ever seen. It has now become apparent that the group most affected by the strike was, unfortunately, college students. Led by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), the strike had clear goals and objectives. OPSEU had attempted to negotiate things like better job security and more full-time positions with the Ontario colleges, but the colleges claimed it would cost them too much, and were unable to meet UPSEU’s demands. On October 16, 2017, a five-week strike began.

After five weeks of striking, the Ontario government passed back-to-work legislation that ended the strike. With the Ontario elections looming, legislatures may have been all too eager to end such a disruptive strike. Students are the newest addition to the electorate, and for many of them this will be their first Provincial election. In the 2015 Federal elections, youth and students played a major role in appointing Liberal leader Justin Trudeau into office. With that in mind, the Ontario government may have felt pressure to tread lightly and recognise the difficult position this strike put college students in, the result of which was a lengthy and unproductive PR nightmare. In the aftermath of the strike,  Ontario colleges have extended the semester, allowing students to forfeit a large portion of their Christmas vacation to finish their studies. The colleges have also made their refund policies more flexible in light of this chaotic semester, in order to make withdrawal a more accessible option for students in financial difficulty.

There is a commonality between all strikes, regardless of the situation or time period. The goal of a strike is to place economic pressure with the intention to achieve a change through mass work stoppage. It usually takes the form of employees of a company looking for better pay or improved work conditions, or a group looking to raise awareness. In every strike, the target group -- the one that is being asked to make the change -- is always clear. Without the economic squeeze directly impacting the target group, a strike could not push the target group to action. 

As clear and straightforward as the goals were for this strike, it soon became apparent that the target group was not being impacted as in most strikes. Since the students had already paid tuition to the colleges by the time the strike started, it was the students who were economically affected. The students were used as bargaining chips – as a line of defense behind which the colleges stood. While the Ontario colleges could have anticipated some future economic pressure, and certainly were dealing with a PR nightmare, they were not impacted as they should have been be by a strike.

Nathan Gamble is a student at Algonquin College in Ottawa. In his second year of postsecondary, he is studying in the Building Construction Technician Program. His program is very hands-on, and requires practical skills training. During the strike, Nathan and his classmates lost many hours of this training. Nathan, while advocating for better pay for the instructors, lamented this loss, saying, “no one considered how it would affect the students – we’re just pawns in this game of money grab.”

What, however, does this strike tell us about the effectiveness of democratic strikes in the 21st century? Gone are the days of the Industrial Revolution, when strikes were negotiated between miners and the mining company owner. Collective bargaining is now politically charged, and strikers are often actors within multinational corporations bickering during negotiations. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there is a constitutional right to strike. However, this October, Ontario colleges used their students to stronghold against the demands of the OPSEU, impacting the wrong group and therefore rendering this right effectively useless. Instead of placing economic pressure on the Colleges, this strike impacted the students. While staff marched endless circles on the picket line, and students lost invaluable training hours, the Colleges were able to deflect the pressure of the strike. The strike was not working, and five weeks later, the Ontario government passed the back-to-work legislation.

Historically, back-to-work legislation has been unwelcome. It is a piece of legislation that forces the end of the strike because the services have been deemed necessary to the economy. During the Industrial Revolution this type of legislation was often used to control the striking labourers and to keep power in the hands of the corporations.

Similarly, in the Ontario College strikes, power was still in question; this time it was politically charged. The Ontario government passed this legislation so that students could return to classes before they -- and their parents who in some cases might be supporting them -- began to think about the upcoming elections. It was also becoming apparent that that Colleges were prepared to go ridiculous lengths not to provide OPSEU with its demands. I argue that the reason for this was because Colleges had no need: the students took most of the burden – through their mental health, economic pressure, loss of important training, and ultimately though a threat to their future as contributing labourers to the economy.

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