The Ontario College Faculty Strike – The Impact and Reality for Students!

The college faculty strike in Ontario is now in its 4th week… with no agreement reached yet and mixed messages about what is actually happening at the negotiating table.
Years ago I came across an old African Proverb that says “When 2 elephants fight – it’s the grass that suffers the most”.  I fully support the idea of employees being able to take action to support their need for fair employment; however a strike is an indication that the regular negotiating process has failed. Negotiating processes are rarely easy – typically there are contentious issues to resolve and strong opinions on all sides about what solutions will work.  As human beings, when we negotiate we will have a perspective about what the issues are and a position as to how these issues should be resolved.  We want to win which would mean that the other side would accept our proposal. And people get frustrated when the other ‘side’ is reluctant or unwilling to do so.  And the other side will be equally frustrated with us!

However one of the realities of a ‘strike’ is that it is a withdrawal of services for whatever group is served by the organization. So a bus strike removes the transit services for riders… a health care strike would remove (or reduce) services to patients and a teacher / faculty strike removes or reduces services to students.  The need to restore services is typically one of the pressures put on both sides to resolve the issues, reach an agreement and restore the services to an often vulnerable clientele. And in the case of the Ontario College strike – the impacted clientele (the student body) does not have a voice at the table so the true impact of the strike on students may not be adequately represented in the process.

Some of the impacts and bigger implications that I have heard are:
–    Major financial stress if the term has to be repeated or extended…
–    International students who may have visas that will now expire before they can finish their studies due to the disruption and the extended terms.
–    Students with leases who will now either incur extra costs or lose their housing before the extended terms are complete
–    Students
–     Or students who have already bought plane tickets and will now have to choose between finishing their studies or going home to take that summer job  that they’ve been offered.
–    Students in residence who may have to pay more and stay longer if the semester is extended.
Add to that the additional emotional stress of not knowing what will happen, trying to figure out how to juggle the ripple effect  of unplanned  weeks out of class ($$$, time, career implications, jobs, housing, mental well-being etc.). Research shows that stress and mental health issues are significant for post-secondary students. Add in the burden of a strike and there is a risk that students may not be able to cope.

Nadia Ayotte-Samson, a young student attending Algonquin College in Police Foundations has her own strong opinion on the matter…
On October 15 2017, I heard the worst possible news, education wise. I received an email by the President of Algonquin College, officially stating that the rumours of a strike were true, and it was starting that Monday(the next day) six weeks into my two year program, all assignments, midterm studies, teaching and marking hit a dead stop. No more eight AM classes, study sessions and stories. At first, students were fine with the thought of the strike lasting a few days, giving a few days of relaxation and having lots of time to study! As the strike hit four days then five, we started getting nervous. Hearing about past Ontario College strikes lasting 23 days started to frighten us. Most stayed on top of assignments that were still open online and kept up with notes. Once the end of the second week of the strike hit, we knew we were in trouble.
As all Ontario colleges are on strike, the news stations are keeping on top of the process so there’s lots of information online keeping us up to date. Two weeks in, the two sides were not negotiating. It doesn’t take much for young adults to get mad about things, especially things that mess with their future. The Algonquin College group page on Facebook exploded. Students saying things such as dropping out and getting a refund, calling the two sides “childish”, that the union is not looking at the best interest of the students, and that we are paying thousands of dollars to sit at home. They aren’t pretty posts to read, but I understand where they are coming from…
Three months before my first year of College my parents told me that they were no longer paying for my education. With prom and graduation coming up and paying over five thousand dollars to go to school, it hit me all at once. At this point I didn’t have a job, but did have a small amount of money saved up. I went out and got a job the next week at a local grocery store, I worked part-time while in high school while also playing sports with the school. I was working four shifts a week just to be able to pay for all the events and schooling coming up. Luckily, after working full time in the summer I saved enough money to pay for first year.  I expected to get the full education I am paying for, and that didn’t include missing a month+.
Another student who I met in my class already has a University degree but recently found policing is a passion and path he wants to take. He is from Brazil, he and his family moved to Canada a few months ago so that he can have an education in Canada. He is paying over $40 thousand dollars to go to Algonquin College being an exchange student. That doesn’t include textbooks, uniform, transportation etc. Also, his family’s expenses, he has siblings who also are here for school, his parents are working hard to afford everything with recently buying a house in Canada.
We thought the teachers had our back and were looking to get us back to school as quickly as possible, but it appears we thought wrong. We have no voice in this situation. It is all about the union and what the teachers want, they are stopping us from learning what we love and it’s frustrating because we sit quiet in class and be respectful to them and their opinions but they don’t necessarily care about our opinions on this situation; due to the fact that the union and teachers are not asking us about our needs within the class room.
Today, we are near the end of week four of the strike. We only have 15 weeks in a semester so that is a large chunk of the semester. Now, students are very frustrated, the thought of not going back to school is getting more and more real. The latest email from the president stated that they are disappointed with this issue and “answering” some questions regarding the semester that people have asked. Every answer was that they won’t have an answer until the strike is over. Which is extremely unsettling because who knows when that will be. If we return to class to finish this semester, weeks of work will be crammed into days. Assignments will be taken out and have one or two large assignments worth 20-25%, which is scary numbers to look at. Not to mention, the anxiety of returning to four weeks missed of school and jumping straight into midterms. Midterms are stressful enough for students- 25% of your final grade for a three hour exam, students study weeks for these exams. The stress level coming back from the strike jumping straight to exams will increase causing higher levels of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The school has great resources for situations listed above, but once school starts back up, they won’t be able to take care of all the students who are struggling with these problems. Now students are starting to give up hope that we will return to class and continue the education in a program that we love and chose for a reason. This situation ruins our college experience as a whole and has financial implications, long term career implications and life implications.”

So is the need to restore services enough incentive for negotiating teams to settle in and stick with the negotiations through the tough discussions that need to happen? It often appears not… Maybe they just don’t have enough skin in the game? Maybe it’s not personal enough for them to make it imperative to get it sorted out…  What options are available to help raise the stakes for the negotiating teams?
•    Well… what if the negotiating teams in a transit strike were denied access to vehicles (cars, taxis etc.) so that they were put in the same position as the transit riders in having to find alternative ways to get to the negotiations?
•    What if those who are not on strike and those doing the negotiating (managers, executives, union and management negotiating teams) had their regular pay withheld until they reached an agreement…  and were paid the same amount as what the striking employees receive as strike pay… Would that provide incentive?
•    What if there were fines imposed for any interruption in negotiations that stalled the discussions?
•    What if colleges knew that they would not only have to refund tuition but that they would have to pay a penalty to students for breach of contract?

In no way do I want to imply that the collective bargaining process including strikes should be shut down… but having now watched numerous strikes that have dragged on unnecessarily long due to one (or both) sides refusal to keep talking I believe that we can make the process more efficient.

 

The Conflict Resolution Workout!
When negotiations fail, the repercussions for those involved or affected can be significant.
1. How can the impact of failed negotiations be minimized on those who do not have a say in the discussions but who are adversely affected by the strike?
2. When a strike drags on, at what point should someone step in and help?
3. How can those affected by the loss of service have a voice in the negotiations given that they are rarely have standing in the negotiations.

Ruth Sirman is a mediator and organizational conflict consultant who has been helping organizations turn toxic workplaces into healthier working environments since 1996. She is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and mediator / consultant who has helped hundreds of workplaces and thousands of people regain the joy in going to work! For more information – www.canmediate.com

“I worked in a workplace that spiraled out of control. Ruth works tirelessly to get results. She gained everybody’s trust and gave us the tools to be successful. It’s unbelievable the difference in the workplace. People now love to come to work. I’ve been with this company 35 years and I’ve never seen anybody do what Ruth has empowered people to do.” A Miller, BCWS

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