On Tuesday, Nov. 21, hundreds of thousands of Ontario college students returned to class as the province’s five-week college faculty strike finally came to an end. The 12,000 college faculty—including professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians—had been on strike since Oct. 16. After all that, it’s hard to say who won. The striking faculty and College Employer Council never reached a deal, and it was provincial back-to-work legislation that ultimately put an end to the strike.
The immediate losers of the strike are clear: The some 500,000 students who lost a month’s worth of class. That meant losing a month of paid tuition, and of class time that could potentially result in delayed graduation. Students had no seat at the bargaining table, and virtually no power over the outcome, yet they were the most directly affected by the strike. It’s not hard to see why some students wanted to assign blame. While some called for solidarity between students and their striking professors, others criticized the faculty members who walked out of classrooms in the first place.
This apparent rift between student and faculty interests, and the events that produced the strike, point to a deeper problem for post-secondary institutions and students alike: Although education is seen as an essential service, and teachers in it as service providers, educators do not receive the correspondingly essential respect and benefits for their work. Moving forward, it is essential that post-secondary institutions have the necessary channels to address faculty grievances before reaching breaking points. This will help improve working conditions for educators and, correspondingly, the quality of education their students receive. Moreover, students and administrators must critically revisit the value they currently assign their teachers.
The striking faculty members’ key demands—increased job security through more full-time jobs, as well as control over course content and teaching methods—are absolutely valid. Prior to the strike, part-time contract instructors—who, in addition to being paid less, don’t enjoy the job stability of full-time or tenured professors—made up 70 per cent of the Ontario college workforce. The faculty union’s core demand to get that proportion down to 50 per cent was a response to the majority of Ontario college teachers currently being in precarious, low-paying job situations. That is something worth striking over, for both teachers and their future students.
However, whatever future classes have to gain from more full-time professors and teaching assistants makes little difference to the students who were out of class for a full month. Of course, the point of any strike is to highlight the value of a service, by taking that service away. This necessitates negative consequences for users of the service in question—in this case, students. The irony is that in reality, student and faculty interests ought to align, not conflict, because the demands that faculty were striking over stand to benefit students in the long-run.
The more fundamental and ingrained issue underpinning the strike is the way that students and schools currently view teachers’ work. Frequently, faculty put in extra and often unpaid time and energy to help students succeed. Discounting after-hours help or a Saturday-morning email response as merely part of the job description undercuts all of the professional and, often, emotional labour that come with being an educator. When that unfairness becomes institutionalized in the form of short-shrift contracts or inadequate pay, and reaches a point at which educators feel they have no other option, they respond through the only effective means of negotiation left to them—they go on strike.
As part of the Ontario government’s intervention, colleges have been directed to refund the most financially-affected students, using savings from the striking faculty’s unpaid wages. This is a necessity, but it is also a retroactive band-aid solution to a deeper problem. To prevent future students from becoming collateral damage in another long-winded strike, it is essential that post-secondary institutions—whether it is an Ontario college, or a university like McGill—have adequate complaint and response mechanisms for over-burdened or dissatisfied faculty. More fundamentally, it is essential that post-secondary institutions, governments, and students alike demonstrably value their educators, in order to proactively reduce the likelihood that their faculty feel the need to resort to a strike in the future.