Last September, support staff at Ontario's 24 community colleges hit the picket lines for a few weeks after they were unable to come to an agreement with their employers.
This year, it's the college faculty's turn to negotiate as the new school year fast approaches.
Since June 4, the workers' union, the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union (OPSEU), has been attempting to negotiate a two-year deal with the College Employer Council, the consortium representing the province's community colleges.
But with the faculty's contract due to expire Aug. 31, the two parties say they're still far apart in negotiations. On Aug. 16, OPSEU applied to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a strike vote for Sept. 6.
Cambrian College said in an email statement that the college is working on contingency plans in the event that an agreement with faculty is not reached.
“Cambrian hopes that the talks will be successful, and that there will be no disruption to students' studies,” the statement said.
“In the case of a strike, the college will do everything in its power to ensure that students are able to meet their learning objectives and stay on track.”
Representatives of Collège Boréal were not immediately available for comment.
Carolyn Gaunt, the co-chair of the union's bargaining team and the co-ordinator of Cambrian College's human resources management program, said negotiations have been rather slow despite regular meetings between the two parties.
They've been meeting with the help of a conciliator since Aug. 14.
“We're certainly planning on being back at the table and bargaining moving up towards the strike vote,” Gaunt said.
“I can tell you that the initial settlement offer that the colleges put on the table yesterday had pretty much nothing that dealt with the concerns that faculty have brought forward. But we're working on it.”
One of the key issues in negotiations is academic freedom so that teachers rather than management determine how courses are delivered.
Gaunt gives the example of management wanting instructors to use multiple-choice exams, even when they're not appropriate, as a means of assessment.
“They're more and more saying 'We want you to use this evaluation method because that way we can give you less time for evaluation, and therefore fit other things on your workload,'” she said.
“The faculty are objecting to that because it doesn't give the students the best deal, or a way to get the skill sets to be able to get out and be successful in the workplace.”
Then there's updating the workload formula to address increased online learning.
Gaunt said she sometimes goes to a conference and wants to share the information she's garnered with her students.
The easy way would be to have an informal discussion in class. But if she were to share it online, it would be much more work.
“If I'm doing this online, I have to find a way to integrate that information in an electronic format that will work for students,” Gaunt said.
“That's a different level of work than coming back to class and talking to people about it.”
Another issue is better treatment of partial-load faculty, who teach more than six hours per week and less than 12.
“What we're looking for for them is some sense of job security,” she said.
“For example, if they're teaching some courses one semester, and they're doing a good job, and those courses come up the next semester, that person should have the first option for those courses.”
Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council, told Northern Life that given the fiscal restraints set out by the province, it's been challenging to come to an agreement with OPSEU.
“The government has made it clear they won't fund any wage increases or any delivery costs for programs and services we deliver,” he said.
The colleges have put an offer on the table with no compensation increases; however, the union is proposing wage increases that total $36 million, Sinclair said. They also want workload and staffing adjustments that would cost $140 million and improvements to benefits which would cost $5 million.
“We're looking at just under $200 million, so I guess you could say we're $200 million apart,” he said.
In terms of the union's demands regarding academic freedom and updating the workload formula to address increased online learning, those issues are “non-starters” because they would cost money, Sinclair said.
Although OPSEU disagrees, he said the colleges believe their offer addresses the union's issues regarding partial-load teachers.
Sinclair said he's still optimistic the two parties will reach a deal in time.
“We're bargaining as we speak,” he said.
“In this sector it's normal to have a strike vote. We're working with the conciliator. We've got eight days scheduled between now and the expiry of the agreement. We'll continue to work away and try to get an agreement.”