Ontario college support staff unionize – after 14-year struggle

‘Extraordinary’ case involved large number of workers, multiple locations: Lawyer

Ontario college support staff unionize – after 14-year struggle
“It was a hell of a fight,” says Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of OPSEU, of the agreement with the College Employer Council. Credit: OPSEU

After a “huge undertaking” that began in 2005, about 20,000 part-time college support staff in Ontario have finally signed their first collective agreement with the College Employer Council (CEC), which represents 24 community colleges in the province.

“It’s the biggest organizing drive in decades, if not in the history of the labour movement,” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president.

“It was funny — a year to the date of certification, we got the tentative agreement. I wouldn’t plan it; it was just a fluke,” he said. “It’s good to see (for) this group of people.”

The part-time support workers were certified by the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) on Jan. 30, said Thomas.

And on that same day, OPSEU and CEC agreed to a first contract for the workers, who had been barred from union membership in the original Colleges Collective Bargaining Act, which was drafted in the early 1970s, he said.

“There was a large group of people who stuck with the effort and would just help reach out to new hires (and) other part-time workers. Our unionized employees in the college, (and) in the academic-support side full-timers, they helped out a lot to help track people down,” said Thomas.

“It really is what we would call kitchen-table organizing: You’ve got to find one person, one person, one person, one person, because they’re all scattered all over the place — different work, different times, and then the students who work.”

This is “a positive step forward” for the part-time workers, said CEC in a statement.

“This agreement is the first of its kind — which provides fair terms and conditions for part-time workers who play an important role in developing career-ready Ontarians. Over half our part-time workers are current students and this deal ensures they can access part-time opportunities during their time at college. These job opportunities provide income and valuable experience to students, helping jump-start their careers.”

Hopefully, the new contract eliminates the glut of precarious work in the college system, said Thomas.

“A lot of this workforce comes and goes because they’re part-time. There’s people in the college system who have been part-time or precarious, contract after contract for 15, 20 years, and they stuck with it,” he said.

“So now they don’t have to re-apply every semester like a lot of them did. It changes people’s lives really (in) just that they might be getting 24 hours a week, but have to re-apply every four months.”

It’s particularly meaningful for the people who have been sticking it out for a long time, said Tracy MacMaster, reference technician at Seneca College in Toronto, who was one of the organizers who helped part-time support workers sign union cards.

“I don’t know how they feel about the contract in front of them, but their rights were so limited,” she said. “I have people that I work with in my department right next to me every day who do essentially the same job that I do for half as much money and they haven’t had a raise in 10 years. The hope is that they can continue to do the work with better conditions.”

New benefits

The staff — defined as any college employee who is not involved in a teaching or administrative capacity and who works fewer than 24 hours per week — voted to ratify the agreement on Feb. 21.

“Anyone who is not a teacher and administrator is support staff, and that’s everything from the student ambassadors that greet people during orientation, helping people around the building, to the IT services that keep the colleges running; the aircraft mechanics that keep the airplanes running in that program; the secretaries — pretty much any job you can imagine that isn’t teaching in the colleges is a support staff (member),” said MacMaster.

The colleges’ funding model saw most of the support staff as part-time employees, she said.

“When you look at the percentages, 75 per cent of the teachers in the system are part-time with no access to benefits or decent wages or any kind of job security. It’s not me exaggerating (but), quite clearly, the colleges are reliant on this model. The fact that the part-time support stuff has managed to organize and get a contract in front of them, it’s astonishing and something to celebrate,” said MacMaster.

With the new collective agreement, the employees will “get a grievance procedure; they don’t have to keep re-applying for their jobs; there’s language in there that they can bid on full-time jobs when they come out whereas before they didn’t really have that right; they’ll form health and safety committees — it’s a whole host of things there... wage increases, but mostly it will be just that right to work toward secure, stable employment,” said Thomas.

Unique organizing effort

The 14-year long battle was “quite exceptional” and not often replicated in labour relations, according to Craig Stehr, partner at Gowling in Ottawa.

“The complexity of the case is quite extraordinary and I would suggest this explains why the matter did take so long to be resolved, but it is most certainly an unusual case,” he said. “The situation was unusually complex, dealing  with a large number of workers and the proposed bargaining unit and multiple locations and so on.”

Typically, a union certification case could “be resolved... within a matter of months, six months, but the point to emphasize is that the length of time that it takes in terms of the scope of the bargaining unit, in the context of a certification application... really depends on the complexity of the circumstances surrounding the application,” said Stehr.

“The more complex the circumstances or the composition of the bargaining unit, the longer it’s going to take for the board to adjudicate.”

In the fall of 2009, OPSEU signed thousands of employees with union cards but “even after we got the right to unionize them, they used every trick in the book to keep from counting the cards, so we withdrew, and came back in a year and signed them all up again,” said Thomas.

The next effort began in September 2015, he said, as OPSEU submitted the cards to the OLRB and demanded a vote in June 2016.

The CEC appealed in court but on Jan. 10, 2018, 84 per cent of support staff voted to unionize and become OPSEU members, said Thomas.

“I’ve been working on this project since 2005; it’s sort of become my life’s work,” said MacMaster.

“The actual technical aspects of hunting people down to sign cards was the difficulty because they’re mostly hidden. And if they’re support staff, their hours are so erratic, that it’s a lot of people to track down.”

Complicating the efforts to organize was the fact that a lot of the support staff were students, who were employed only as long as their courses were running, said MacMaster.

“There’s a huge turnover in that a lot of the students are employees, so there’s a very high percentage of student employees and they fundamentally just want things to be fair. And, of course, they would love access to apply as an internal candidate for jobs when they’ve already worked there for a couple of years.”

When the colleges opened, part-time work was a small percentage of the workforce, she said.

“It was a different time, so there was a certain amount of sexism inherent in the idea that it would be all women and there was a great many of them and it was just pin money, honestly,” said MacMaster. “It was a very long road.”

Law changed

In this case, OPSEU took the fight to the Ontario legislature, and the union continued to battle the employer in the courts and on campuses.

“It was a hell of a fight because first we had to get the law changed and then they changed the law, but they didn’t make it easy and then we had to fight them every step of the way,” said Thomas.

“We had to spend millions and I wager they spent millions to fight us: They use all lawyers, we use staff.”

The Colleges Collective Bargaining Act was amended in 2008 by the then-Liberal provincial government and it allowed part-time college employees to unionize.

“The proposed amendments that I’m aware of go back to 2008, which would have been partway through this the saga,” said

“(From) what I understand, the changes were... that the act maintained the existing full-time bargaining units, and then they created two new provincewide bargaining units each for academic part-time and sessional employees, and then another one for part-time support employees employed on what would be called non-recurring and projects.”

As well, 2018 legislation amending the Employment Standards Act (ESA) in Ontario provided a welcome boon to the workers, said MacMaster.

“The changes under the ESA that changed the exclusions have had a huge impact: They’re now entitled to vacation pay and statutory holidays which they weren’t entitled to before and this was applied very unevenly,” she said.

“Some colleges paid them and some colleges didn’t, and now they must pay them so that’s a good thing.”

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