Part-time Support Staffers Join OPSEU Family

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A new unionized group of workers will be created within the Ontario college system, now that part-time support staffers have voted to join the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

OPSEU already has long represented full-time support staff and full-time faculty members at the province’s two dozen colleges. Those are separate bargaining units, with separate contracts, now joined by a third one representing the part-timers.

In 2016, OPSEU conducted a campaign to unionize part-time support staff (technicians, clerks, maintenance personnel, etc. – including student workers). That culminated in a June vote by those 20,000 workers, to determine whether they wanted to join OPSEU.

Those votes were just recently tabulated because the College Employer Council (“management”) had, for the past year-and-a-half, raised a series of objections to the process.

Late last year, the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) rejected the Council’s objections, and authorized the long-awaited counting of the ballots.

As it turned out, 84 percent of those who had cast ballots in 2016 favoured joining OPSEU.

In a news release, OPSEU President Warren Thomas called it “a magnificent victory for part-time college support staff, and for all the people who worked hard for so many years to win union rights for them. The union movement is back and stronger than ever. We fought off an onslaught of right wing reforms but, at the end of the day, workers understand clearly the union advantage when it comes to inequality, injustice, and a fair and productive workplace.

“This has been a long and costly struggle, but it was well worth it to improve the working conditions of thousands of people across Ontario. It’s a shame that the College Employer Council spent millions of taxpayer dollars on high-priced lawyers to try to prevent these workers from exercising their rights. The fact that we overcame their resistance only makes this victory all the sweeter.”

OPSEU also mounted a province-wide organizing drive to represent more than 20,000 contract faculty in the colleges. That vote, which took place in October 2017, has yet to be counted by the OLRB.

The “precarious predicament” of part-time workers in the college system was, also, a major topic of discussion during the five-weeks-long strike by full-time faculty members, from mid-October to mid-November of last year. OPSEU emphasized the job insecurity, insufficient pay and over-use of such workers throughout the system.

Within the next month or two, the Council and OPSEU will convene to begin hammering out the first contract for the newly unionized part-time support staffers.

Both they and the part-time faculty members – whether they are unionized or not – will automatically benefit from the new wage-setting policies and mandatory benefits contained in the provincial government’s Bill 148 (“Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs”), which will serve as the minimal basis of new labour agreements.

As part of the arbitrated settlement of the full-time faculty strike, a task force was created by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Among other topics, it will study the impact and implementation of Bill 148 within the college system. If it ultimately determines that a contracted instructor provides precisely the same service as a full-time professor, then the part-timers who dominate the academic workforce will start to earn the same hourly pay as their full-time colleagues.

Under that scenario, one estimate pegs the cost of wage-and-benefit hikes for part-timers (support staff and faculty) at the 24 schools at approximately (and collectively) $300 million per year.

There is no indication, to date, that the provincial government will provide any additional grant-funding to cover that gargantuan new expense …

… And the colleges will have little “wiggle room” to offset that cost during this period of climbing enrolment. They can’t really cut a whole lot of jobs because classes and services must be still delivered. And no longer will they be able to reduce costs by utilizing a significant percentage of part-time workers and teachers because, given Bill 148’s elimination of wage disparities, there’s no longer a substantial cost-saving associated with that strategy.

Perhaps the only way – pragmatically, practically and unfortunately – for a school to offset what may be tens-of-millions of dollars of uncovered new expenditure would be to cut entire programs (and the employees associated with them).

Look for the first indications of how the system will deal with these new challenges during the next few months. Abiding by the province’s fiscal year, colleges will be unveiling their 2018-19 budgets by the end of March.