With the June 7, 2018, provincial election around the corner, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, in recent months, have made moves in an attempt to shore up their progressive flank with measures such as increasing the minimum wage, strengthening civilian oversight of policing and reforming the criminal justice system.
But, with the imposition of back-to-work legislation to resolve the five-week college faculty strike, Wynne’s efforts to present a more progressive-friendly agenda may be imperiled. The collective bargaining process is a crucial component of any progressive agenda and Wynne’s interference in it risks damaging any goodwill she has built over the last few months, particularly with the labour movement.
Also, the issues that are central to the college faculty strike, particularly the precarity of work as it relates to the many occasional and part-time faculty, are issues that Wynne has identified, specifically in the debate around Bill 148 Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017, to be an important element of her attempts to create a more fair society. Yet, the lack of funding for post-secondary education, which is the lowest of any province in Canada, diminishes her message. While Wynne may tout the increased availability of lower and, potentially, free tuition for many students, the length of this strike does little to make those same students, and their parents, believe that she has made post-secondary education more accessible to them. In fact, the perceived good of the lower tuition fees is inconsequential when one has no classes to attend.
In addition, for many in the elementary and secondary education systems, Wynne’s back-to-work legislation reminds them of the Liberals interference and imposition of contracts on education workers over the last few years.
While some may say that Wynne did everything possible to allow the collective bargaining process to conclude on its own, the challenge remains that her actions in the end will not be appreciated by either students, parents or the striking workers. It is likely that Wynne would have been condemned for imposing back-to-work legislation at any point in the process whether it would have been after one week or ten weeks.
As students and faculty return to classes, the main issue for Wynne and her government to review is the funding formula for post-secondary education. She needs to ask if there is enough money in post-secondary education to allow the proper funding of faculty that are not reliant on precarious work, which in the end, impacts on student learning. Also important is a review of the actions of the employer group and if they were genuinely interested in a collective bargaining settlement or were awaiting government back-to-work legislation to resolve the issue for them.
For elementary and secondary school education workers' unions, the actions of the colleges’ employer groups reminds them of similar action by their employer group. It can only be hoped that Wynne will come up with a better plan than the inadequate School Boards Collective Bargaining Act, 2016, which did little to address the concerns raised by education unions respecting the actions of the employer group in the collective bargaining act. If not, the current cycle of strikes ended by back-to-work legislation will only continue. And, that, in the end, will only continue to harm the education system and the political party in power.