by Jacquie Miller
At Ontario’s universities, the army of contract teaching staff will be hurt the most by the province’s plan to restrict wage increases for the public sector, says a spokesperson for faculty unions.
The legislation introduced by the Ontario government would prevent unions from bargaining to improve wages for staff at the bottom of pay scales, said Gyllian Phillips, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
“This legislation is going to affect those who make $30,000 as much as those who make $100,000,” she said.
More than half the courses at Ontario universities are taught by contract faculty, who earn much less than full-time professors, said Phillips. “It’s those folks who are really going to suffer the most with this kind of legislation. Without that ability to bargain fairly to bring those folks up to a fair wage, the massive inequities in the system will just increase.”
Improving the working conditions and pay for contract staff have been key issues for unions representing both university and college faculty. It was the major issue in a five-week strike by college professors across Ontario in the fall of 2017.
The wage-restraint bill may be a spark that feeds labour unrest across the post-secondary education sector.
Phillips says she’s not optimistic about how contract negotiations will go at Ontario’s universities.
“I think (the legislation) is going to make things very, very difficult,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say for sure, but anything that gets in the way of the conversation at the table, where you can work out a fair exchange of what managers and workers need, anything that puts a block on that and pulls the two sides apart, is going to make it much more difficult to get there.”
The legislation would also hamper the power of arbitrators to act as an “escape valve” for difficult negotiations, she said. The legislation would prevent arbitrators from making awards that exceed the proposed cap on wage increases, she said.
A spokesperson for the union representing faculty at Ontario colleges puts it bluntly: “We are going to be in for a big fight,” said RM Kennedy, chair for the Ontario colleges faculty division of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
Precarious employment of part-time professors was the “No. 1 issue” behind the 2017 college strike, strike, he said.
About 75 per cent of college faculty are contract workers, said Kennedy. The council representing colleges, during the last round of bargaining, used a different calculation, noting that 49 per cent of teaching hours were by full-time professors.
However, negotiations with college faculty are in the distant future. The provincial contract between colleges and faculty doesn’t expire until Sept. 31, 2020.
(Under the legislation, public-sector wage increases would be capped at one per cent annually for three years, but only after current collective agreements expire.)
It’s a more immediate issue at some universities, where contracts are negotiated at each institution.
At Carleton University, for instance, the contract with full-time faculty doesn’t expire until April 30, 2021, but agreements covering part-time faculty and teaching assistants expire at the end of August 2019.
Negotiations will “be a difficult battle for us,” said Yaroslava Montenegro, spokesperson for the union local that represents contract professor and teaching assistants at Carleton. The legislation “is going to put a strain on our ability to have a collective bargaining process,” she said.
Most university faculty agreements are for three years, said Phillips. She estimated that seven or eight of the agreements will expire over the next year.
The proposed legislation would apply to more than a million public-sector workers, including staff at school boards, colleges and universities, hospitals and children’s aid societies, among others.
The government has said the legislation does not interfere with collective bargaining or tamper with existing contracts.
“By taking steps to ensure increases in public sector compensation reflect the fiscal reality of the province, the government is working to protect jobs, workers and vital services, now and as the government tackles Ontario’s debt,” said a statement from Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Treasury Board.
Unions have pledged to protest the legislation and are threatening legal challenges if it is passed.
Universities and colleges will benefit financially by having wages constrained at a time when the provincial government has reduced their funding and cut tuition by 10 per cent, which also reduces their revenue.
Phillips and Kennedy say they don’t understand how restricting wages for post-secondary workers will save the provincial government money.
The government has already announced the funding it intends to give post-secondary institutions for the next three years.
“We are not directly paid by the government,” said Kennedy. “I’m not a government employee. The government gives a grant to the colleges. So if they put wage caps on, how is that saving the government money, unless they are intending to reduce the operating grant?”