Strike called off as OPSEU, CEC head to binding interest arbitration

There is a sense of calm and normalcy across the three St. Lawrence College campuses today after the SLC Faculty Union – Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 417 – and the College Employers Council (ECE) came to an agreement with just over an hour left before the union workers’ planned strike deadline.

Students heading into the St. Lawrence College (SLC) main building on the College’s Kingston Campus. Photo via SLC website.

It was 10:43 p.m. on Thursday, Mar. 17, 2022, when Grant Currie, President of the Local 417, received word from the OPSEU collective bargaining team that the CEC had agreed to binding interest arbitration. Currie spread the word to those within the local union, all of whom were poised and ready to strike if that agreement hadn’t been made.

For the college faculty members, the last-minute consensus is welcome – just as it was when they asked for interest arbitration over three months ago, before the OPSEU members moved into work-to-rule position in mid-December 2021 (The Local 417 members received confirmation on Monday, Mar. 14, 2022 that they would strike Friday, Mar. 18, 2022 if an agreement wasn’t met before then.)

“It’s immense relief. But again, you know, it’s echoed with disappointment that this offer was there in November,” Currie expressed, wondering why it took so long to come to the agreement, and why that agreement had to happen at the eleventh hour.

“Why were we on work to rule for three months? Why did they put us through a forced offer after the strike vote? And why did we have to put the students through the threat of a strike deadline, when they agreed to what we proposed back in November?”

Nonetheless, the Local 417 members are happy to get back to ‘business as usual,’ and the students who have heard that the strike is off the table have expressed relief, Currie said, noting that he received a lovely message from the President of the SLC Student Association (SA), Terry McGinn, who said the SA was “happy that it turned out this way.”

From here, both parties will lay their cases before the elected arbitrator, William Kaplan, whom both parties have agreed on, Currie explained.

“He will take the submissions from both [parties] and he will draft a new collective agreement for us that takes into consideration the positions put forward on the on the issues that were at impasse as of, I believe, mid September,” Currie explained, noting that, while Kaplan is a very busy man, he feels the lawyer and arbitrator will make this matter a high priority and see to it quickly.

“Those issues are before him, and he will make a new collective agreement for us.”

And although that is what the college faculty workers had proposed months ago, binding interest arbitration does not come without its own inherent liabilities, Currie detailed – there is no negotiating the collective agreement that Kaplan draws up.

“It’s risky for both management and the union employees. It’s risky, but at the end of the day, when you bargain to impasse, it’s an off ramp for you,” he said.

“As long as you agree to the arbitrator – somebody who you believe will make best efforts at hearing the positions of both parties and getting a collective agreement in place – you’ve done the best that you can do.”

And while faculty members never thought that students might end up losing a year of their education as a result of the possible strike – yesterday, Currie explained that the loss of a year for students due to work action has never occurred in the history of Ontario colleges – they are relieved to know that the threat of a strike is no longer hanging over their students, he said.

“And now, I am off to teach a class in 15 minutes,” Currie said at the conclusion of the interview, “and happy to do so.”

For more information on the SLC Faculty Union, click here.
For more information on the College Employers Council, click here.

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