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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1117
May 18, 2015

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Shaking Off the Part-Time Blues:

Fighting for the Rights of Ontario College Workers

Tracy MacMaster

We've all followed the news that part-time, insecure employment is growing. I work at an Ontario college as a full-time library technician. Every day I work side by side with part-time employees whose jobs are the same as mine, but whose working conditions are dramatically different. Part-time workers in Ontario colleges do many different jobs – some are long-time support staff, teachers or student workers – but all have one thing in common – they work without many of the standard protections Ontarians enjoy. College employees are exempted from major portions of the Employment Standards Act that provide the most basic protections for workers in Ontario. Work breaks, statutory pay for holidays, overtime, a minimum wage, all of these rights are enjoyed by part-time and full-time workers in virtually every other sector in Ontario, from CEOs to fast food workers. College workers are one of the very few exceptions to the rule.

As full-time workers, we gain minimum rights and much, much more through our collective agreement – decent wages, benefits, fair use of overtime, a transparent process that preserves jobs in times of lay-off – all won through successive years of collective bargaining. Without a union, part-time workers simply do without the rights that every other worker in the college enjoys.

Everyone is More Vulnerable

In a workplace where unprotected workers have little access to fair wages and working conditions, everyone is more vulnerable. Even the limited rights part-timers have under the law are hard to access, because just one person against the boss is an uneven fight. Without the ability to negotiate a collective agreement that sets clear rules, part-time college workers are perpetual contract workers, often signing their contract the first day of each semester.

Every year part-time numbers grow – in the past 15 years, part-time workers have increased by over 30 per cent while numbers of full-time staff have remained static. Part-time support staff currently outnumber full-time employees 2 to 1 across the province. The more vulnerable part-time workers are, the more difficult it is for us to gain ground in collective bargaining. In the interest of fairness for both part-time and full-time workers, things need to change.

In 2008, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) staff and activists ran the largest union certification drive in Ontario history to gain part-time workers better rights. Thousands of part-time support staff and sessional teachers cast their ballots. After four years of lawyers, hearings and barriers thrown up by the employer, the ballots of part-time workers cast were destroyed, unopened. A lot of hope and energy was invested in the unionization drive, and we learned ways to reach people that work.

Reaching people, creating room for justice and standing together are clearly the way forward. We see it in the Fight for $15, in the U.S. battles to organize retail and fast food workers, in successful bargaining for existing unions, big and small. Active organizing that gives people a voice benefits the members we have, and grows the union. Part-time college workers have long been the poster children for neoliberal employment practices in the public sector in Ontario – challenging the assumptions that lay beneath their precarious working conditions is to challenge the inevitability of shrinking expectations for us all. This makes it everyone's fight.

The most effective tool we have is solidarity. The last attempt to organize this group of workers failed, but not because the workers lacked commitment. Four years after the sealed ballots were cast people were still regularly asking me for updates in the halls. It failed because we let the campaign fall into the hands of lawyers and out of the public eye. The labour movement can win this fight – by showing up, speaking out in public and being unrelenting in our demand for fair treatment. It worked with the Porter strike, it is working in the fight for a fair minimum wage and it can work for the 17,000 college workers who remain unorganized. When we raise our voices together, there's no stopping us. •

Tracy MacMaster is a steward at OPSEU L561, and president of the OPSEU Greater Toronto Area Council (GTAC).


#2 Tom Johnson 2015-05-19 14:07 EST
Solidarity Among College Workers
My name is Tom Johnson. I live in St Paul, MN USA and work as a university adjunct instructor with the rank of associate professor. I have have been an adjunct and full-time college and university teacher for a number of decades throughout the US. My FTE status is about 15-20 years.

I've also done significant work in the US labor movement as a contingent strategic campaigner, organizer and full-time staff writer/photographer. I also was a labor director at Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) in Buffalo, NY (where I had the good luck to work with Canadian trade unionists - as I did when I worked with the Steelworkers). I was also executive director of the Texas Faculty Assn.

I give this brief resume in hopes that my short comments about this excellent piece by Tracy MacMaster are taken seriously. Though no longer an activist (my activism now consists of trying to bring a bit of truth and reality into my classrooms), I have lived (and live) the life of a contingent worker in the US higher education industry where contingents now teach about 75% of all courses.

If there's one thing that I learned throughout all of this, it is: the greatest problem of organizing contingents is the fact that full-timers do not consider contingent workers as equals - and often see them as enemies: scabs, if you will. The result in the US is that academic freedom and tenure for faculty, and job security and benefits for non-faculty workers, are ceasing altogether. Basically, divide-and-conquer has worked.

A footnote to that observation is that too many faculty (full-time and contingent) see themselves as "professionals," separate from the working classes.

I find great hope in this piece by MacMaster as it is spot-on and comes from a full-time university worker. I hope readers take head and take action - action that goes beyond the legalisms of labor "law" which are designed to defuse worker solidarity.

Just one more thing: Solidarity is a way of life, not just a tool. :-)

Thanks for opening this bit of free space.

Tom Johnson
Saint Paul, MN USA

#1 Howard A. Doughty 2015-05-18 11:05 EST
Fighting Back
When Pogo Possum lamented the pollution of his beloved swamp back on Earth Day, 1971, he famously said: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Our situation is not so dire and we are certainly not to blame for the transformation of Seneca and other institutions into K-Mart Kollege. It's all part of a system-wide, national, North American and increasingly global effort to apply the noxious doctrines of neoliberalism to every public investment, enterprise and space ... either by cost-cutting, privatization or simple intimidation of precarious employees.

We must adopt a two-fold strategy.

1. Stop believing authoritarian management as they pretend that their tactics are anything other than the ruthless, exploitative measures they seem to be. We are expected to "do more with less" and to remain silent for fear of losing what little we have in terms of wages, benefits, workplace empowerment and job security. All the talk about allegedly tough economic times doesn't stop them when it comes to gross incompetence and shameless waste as managerial positions balloon, salaries become bloated and fear-mongering becomes the leadership strategy du jour. It doesn't stop them and their friends at Queen's Part when they waste millions on computerization that doesn't work and consultants who are a sinkhole for public money. And it doesn't stop them up the ante with threats against employees for speaking out and talking back. Management has lost credibility and now resorts to the "stick" since the carrots have either turned rotten or disappeared.

2. Start building a movement by bringing full-time support staff, part-time employees and full-time faculty together. Giving in to the temptation to blame one another, to buy into management's divide-and-conquer methods and - worst of all - just to assume that we are powerless and will remain so no matter what, is to collude in our own oppression. It's a slave mentality that needs to be broken. I therefore call on support staff and faculty union locals across the province to get together, to build a political strategy and a political movement to redeem college education - which has been degraded and despoiled by administrative initiatives to cheapen the quality of education by undermining our jobs in favour of a phony "bottom line."

To quote a former colleague at Seneca who saw this coming before many of us did ... in September, 1969! "Surely there must be a strategy more ennobling than a pre-emptive cringe!"

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