Walking the line

Striking Niagara College employees picket outside the entrance to the Welland Campus last Thursday. VOICE PHOTO

Niagara College picketers try to keep warm, upbeat

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

For those Niagara College employees—teachers, librarians, and counsellors—on strike, the first shift on the picket line begins at seven in the morning. Just before this hour last Thursday, a group of picketers had already assembled at the entrance to the campus on Woodlawn Road, beside the YMCA. Christopher Carter, a full-time instructor of pre-health sciences, held a sign above his head that read, “Ontario Colleges get an F in Fairness,” as he stopped cars pulling into the driveway.

“Here, take one of these,” he said, holding out a slip of paper from the union representing the teachers. “And shake my hand, too. Give me some of that warmth from inside of the car.”

It was a cold morning. The sun was still below the horizon, and while the sky had begun to glow blue, it was only just light enough to see the clouds of fog that each person breathed out. When Carter stepped up the curb and onto the grass to let a car past, his boots picked up flecks of frost.

“I live nearby, so it’s good to come and get it done early,” he said of his shift, which finished at ten.

The strike began on October 16 and involves all 24 of Ontario’s publicly funded colleges, and has left classes cancelled for more than 300,000 students across the province. The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) has asked for a nine percent raise over the next three years, as well as increased academic control, and assurance that 50 percent of positions will be full-time. The colleges have offered the union 7.75 percent over four years, and CEO of the College Employer Council, Don Sinclair, told the Toronto Star that, “There is language that gives preference” to full-time hiring.

“The colleges aren’t even at the table,” said Carter. “There isn’t even a negotiation going on right now.”

In September, 68 percent of college faculty represented by OPSEU voted to give their bargaining team a “strike mandate,” though picketers emphasized that this was not a “strike vote.”

“The language is important here,” said another full-time instructor, standing around the driveway.

“We do not want to be here on strike. We want to be at work, teaching our students. But we are willing to fight to make sure that our part-time colleagues are paid fairly and have consistency in their lives.”

The issue of part-time faculty was on the minds of most as they shivered with their signs. Alex McGlashan, who teaches courses on fibre optics, is the Picket Captain at the Woodlawn entrance and had a reflective armband around his right bicep to indicate his position.

“There are some colleges in Alberta where the faculty is 80 or 90 percent full-time. So we don’t think that 50 percent is all that much to ask,” he said. (Full disclosure: one of the reporter’s parents is an occasional part-time instructor at Niagara College.)

Part-time instructors at colleges often don’t know until a few weeks before a term starts whether they’ll have any courses to teach for the semester. “They can only plan their lives four months at a time,” McGlashan said.

One such part-timer present was Joe, a welding instructor who declined to provide his last name. “I just started teaching here in September, so I’m new to all of this,” he said. “But I worked as a welder at Molson for seven years on contracts, and it’s the same thing there. You never know what’s going to happen in a few weeks or months.”

After nearly two weeks of holding a sign by the road for three hours, Joe said that most passersby have honked their horns to demonstrate support, with some exceptions.

“There have been a few people who yell out at us, ‘You greedy bastards, go back to work!’ And I say, ‘Man, it’s not about the money. It’s about security. You think we want to be out here in the cold?’”

As the strike has progressed, Carter has altered his tactics. Nearly all of the people pulling into the college driveway are staff from the school who are not on strike.

“When we first started, last week, I was telling everyone the whole story. But they’ve heard it all many times now, so now I just stop them to say hello,” he said.

One man in a pickup truck pulled into the driveway and stopped before the construction pylon that was blocking the way. He didn’t roll down his window.

“Oh c’mon man,” said Carter through the glass. “Don’t be like that.” The man opened the window enough to speak.

“I’ll be out here for my shift at ten,” he said.

“He was one of the double-hatters,” said Carter after the man had driven away to park. Some part-time instructors at the college are also employed in other positions, ones which aren’t on strike. “He has to be careful that he doesn’t do any of his teaching work while he’s inside.”

With such a provincewide strike, there is little chance of the colleges bringing in scabs to teach the cancelled classes. The dynamic is further altered by the high-level nature of the negotiations—it isn’t as if the strikers are coming face-to-face with the management locking them out. This makes the picket line less dramatic, though it also means that spirits are considerably high.

Judy Calvin, who teaches sociology, changed toques at 8:30.

“I’ve put on my nine o’clock hat,” she said. “It’s warmer than my eight o’clock hat, and I need the warmth right now.”

Another car pulled into the driveway and rolled down its window. Recognizing the driver, Calvin started to sing “Good morning, good morning,” from Singing in the Rain.

“Where’s that song from?” she asked the picketers standing nearby.

“I think it was in a Viagra commercial,” someone said.

“Oh, jeez,” said Calvin, smiling.

By then the sun had finally climbed above the tops of the trees and was shining more directly on the line, though the drivers of cars continued to express concern for the warmth of the picketers.

“This is nothing,” Carter told one woman. “I’m used to ice-fishing in minus-forty. This is the Bahamas.”

Common sentiment on the line was that the strike was not going to be resolved in the immediate future, and most expected that they would be legislated back to work after three weeks. Students in the province have been worried that a prolonged strike could mean the cancellation of the term, though according to McGlashan, his students had been overwhelmingly supportive.

“The last day before they gave me a card with a bunch of gift certificates, too. I found that most of them knew what was going on as much, if not more, than some of my colleagues.”

According to McGlashan, however, international students—who make up an ever-increasing percentage of the college’s enrolment—were less familiar with the labour negotiations.

“Most of the ones I’ve encountered don’t seem to know what’s going on,” he said. “They just know that the college is closed now for some reason.”

McGlashan said that the quantity of international students whom he teaches is just one of the many ways in which the college has transformed. “I have to teach international students in a different way, since they often don’t have the same language skills,” he said. “That’s just one of the ways in which things are changing.”

“Part-time work—that’s the way things seem to be going everywhere,” said another woman, standing beside him. She shook her head, and McGlashan grimaced, and dropped his pen as another striker came to sign in on his captain’s clipboard. He picked it up, re-attached it to his clipboard, and held his sign up high again.

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