St. Lawrence College faculty poised to start work-to-rule

“The question really is for Glenn Vollebregt (SLC CEO and president) and all the other college presidents: Why are they letting College Employer Council put the students through this when there’s no need?”

Grant Currie, President, SLC Faculty Union, OPSEU Local 417
St. Lawrence College unionized faculty members are poised to start a work-to-rule position on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. The union is calling for an increase in the amount of time to evaluate students’ work, among other proposals. Kingstonist file photo.

Negotiations have broken down between St. Lawrence College (SLC) Faculty Union and the College Employer Council (CEC), prompting the union to call for a work-to-rule position effective Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

“The union bargaining team has given the five day’s notice required for labour action. I won’t call it a strike, (but) effective December 18, faculty will be in a work-to-rule position unless the CEC comes back to the table and starts bargaining again,” said Grant Currie, President of the SLC Faculty Union, Local 417 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

SLC students won’t be affected, as their semester ends Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, the day before work-to-rule is scheduled to start. “Our focus is always going to be on students and supporting their learning. Any work-to-rule is focused on management and administration,” Currie added.

Dr. Laurie Rancourt, management team bargaining chair working with the CEC, said, “we are disappointed that we’ve reached this stage in the negotiations. We’ve been working hard to try and find a path to an agreement, to a way forward.”

Rancourt expressed her dismay that only 68 per cent of the bargaining unit voted and has voiced their support for labour action, and that “the votes of the few could result in labour disruptions for many”.

According to Currie, the CEC ended bargaining and asked for a ‘no board report’ — the report filed during union negotiations indicating conciliation has failed — which prompted the union to ask for a strike mandate. Voting occurred last Wednesday, Dec. 8 through Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Across the province, about 60 per cent of those that voted gave the bargaining team a mandate to call a strike if needed, to support the union’s position at the bargaining table, Currie said.

SLC union president Grant Currie. Submitted photo

Bill 124

Currie explained that the union isn’t asking for much, stressing that it’s not even for wage increases. The main request is to increase the amount of time to evaluate students from two to five minutes per student, per week, he said.

“It essentially works down to minutes per student. It’s a complicated formula, [but] that formula hasn’t changed since 1984,” Currie said. “You can imagine in 1984, we’re not dealing with emails and remote or alternative delivery [of the curriculum] — stuff that we’re dealing with now.”

The pandemic has added more challenges for SLC faculty, as they are required to pivot their teaching methods quickly, all of which takes time, the union President expressed.

“They had to flip a lot of things around because of the [higher COVID-19] numbers in Kingston. Exams and tests that were going to be in person, [they had to] flip it quickly and do it remotely. It’s an incredible amount of work to do that,” he said.

However, Rancourt explained that it’s not as easy as just adding a few minutes to a faculty member’s time. At the heart of the disagreement is Bill 124, which states that the total increase of compensation, wages, and benefits cannot go above one per cent.

“We have on the table one per cent wage increases. If we then have to make a change that would result in the college hiring more people, that would result in the total compensation package going up by more than one per cent. If you combine all the changes they are requesting to the workload, it would result in a significant increase to the amount of people that we would need,” she said.

A teacher who is assigned a three-hour course per week, for example, is given a “multiplier” factor to account for time to prepare for a class and evaluating a student’s work. Typically, three hour courses could “multiply” to nine hours for a teacher. Increasing the multiplier factor would then bump up a teacher’s time to 10 or 11 hours for that week.

What could happen with this increase, Rancourt explained, is that colleges would have to hire someone else to do the same amount of work.

“I’m not getting more teaching happening, I’m not increasing productivity of the programming, but I’m increasing the cost of delivery. Now I have to pay somebody else. That contravenes Bill 124. The cost of delivering the same thing has gone up more than one per cent,” she said.

“Bill 124 puts limits on what we can and cannot do. There are legislative reasons why we can’t agree to a few of the demands from the bargaining team. You can’t just zero in on one piece of a very complex process and tweak it, without having done the work. It really is something that requires work. We’ve proposed a process to establish a working group that would be chaired by a neutral party,” Rancourt further added.

Another issue the union has put forth is an emphasis on the importance of mental health. Counsellors are needed now more than ever during the pandemic, and Currie said that counsellors are faced with the prospect of having their work contracted out, something that is already happening in other colleges.

“We’re trying to stop the colleges from doing that. If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that everybody’s mental health is being impacted,” Currie conveyed.

Parties share interests, but arbitration keeps them from moving forward

“We feel that we have a shared responsibility to sit down and hammer this out. We really would like to see that happen without labour disruption.”

Dr. Laurie Rancourt
Dr. Laurie Rancourt. Submitted photo.

Having an arbitrator look at the union member’s issues and challenges is another thing the union is asking for, but Currie said that the union “never gets answers” from the CEC.

“We’re happy to have a third party look at the issues. That’s basically what happened at the end of the strike four years ago. This is what we’ve proposed this time around, avoiding labour disruptions, avoiding any negative impact on students… and the CEC has refused.

“They call the conciliator in and they basically walk away from the table. The CEC has put a spin on it saying that they’ve agreed to an arbitrator, but what they’ve agreed to is an either/or proposition. That’s a coin toss, that’s a gamble that nobody’s prepared to look at, especially when we’re talking about what’s best for students,” Currie explained.

Rancourt disagrees about the CEC’s lack of response to the the union, and walking away from the bargaining table.

“The last meeting that we had were those that were facilitated by the conciliator. The union did submit a position in which they said that it was as far as they would go with the pieces that we have said we are unable to move on,” she said.

“We did respond. If they are unable to move on the pieces we have said, then we don’t see a path to a settlement. There are still areas where we see room for movement, and we’re willing to talk about those, but the ones that contravene Bill 124… those are the pieces that are problematic. We want to negotiate a fair agreement that allows for sustainability of the college system.”

There are three areas where both parties do have a shared interest. Both parties agree that: 1) the workload formula needs to be reviewed; 2) that it is critical to do some shared work in order to make the collective agreement more appropriate from an equity, diversity, and inclusion perspective, and; 3) that both parties need to look at the collective agreement through the lens of Indigeneity and the commitments of Truth and Reconciliation.

“It is the insistence on processes involving decisions by an arbitrator that the colleges can’t agree [on]. Those are issues that are too important for us to leave to someone outside the system to decide. We also think that there are things we should be working together [on] to come up with solutions. We feel that we’re not that far apart, but it’s the arbitration piece and the pieces that contravene Bill 124 that keep us from moving forward,” Rancourt shared.

A hope for a deal in the new year

When SLC students return to school on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, Currie said that they will be doing a number of things to bring students’ attention to the issues and challenges the union is faced with in dealing with the CEC.

“When the semester starts again, at no time is our intent to impact student learning. With any luck, with any goodwill, we’ll have a deal by January 17. [Otherwise], we’re going to be in front of students, advocating for our issues.”

When prompted for anything else he had to add, Currie answered slowly: “The question really is for Glenn Vollebregt (SLC CEO and president) and all the other college presidents: Why are they letting the College Employer Council put the students through this when there’s no need? The opportunity is there, the path is there, all you have to do is say, ‘let’s stop the nonsense, let’s agree to interest arbitration, and get back to work’—which is what everybody wants to do.”

“We feel that we have a shared responsibility to sit down and hammer this out. We really would like to see that happen without labour disruption,” Rancourt said on the part of the CEC.

According to their mission statement, the CEC is the government mandated bargaining agent for the 24 Ontario publicly funded colleges in negotiating collective agreements with unionized staff. The CEC provides a variety of services for the college system, such as advice and guidance on human resources issues, collective agreement administration, research, and is the policyholder for group benefits, according to the CEC website.

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