No winners in college strike

Even when no one comes out winning in a social battle, the biggest loser is often the one that is the most innocent of irresponsible behavior.

Regrettably, this is the case in the community college strike that has dragged on for the last five weeks, throughout the province of Ontario.

In this situation, the biggest losers were the students, especially those Caribbean and other international students whose tuition expenses and living expenses, are almost three times higher than those of Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

The other sad outcome of this workplace dispute is that the substantive defects of the existing industrial relations system still remain uncorrected, now that back-to-work legislation has been passed over the weekend.

As usual, the political parties, including the ruling Liberals, must bear most of the blame, because of their collective failure to address the root causes of the current community college conflict.

Using this particular conflict as a case study, the irresponsible conduct of our province’s politicians can be concretely identified in several areas of policy and practice.

Close to the top of the list of those areas, are the ethical crimes of aiding, abetting and active participation in the commercialization of education. In this process of making education a mere commodity like any other tradable goods and services, education is reduced to skills training: professional ethics, personal development and civic responsibility become optional after-thoughts. And the interests of the students take a back seat, leaving profit-making as the higher priority concern.

Also vying for a top place in that list of ethical crimes is politicians’ failure to launch a broad-based, multi-pronged attack on the causes of the epidemic of precarious employment that has been destroying the labor market in recent decades.

With the notable exception of some NDP politicians, the political class has been at the forefront of the acceptance and the promotion of the private sector principle that nothing can and should be done to counter the socially destructive consequences of today’s devil-take-the-hindmost economy.

Those poisonous consequences arise from a dangerous trend of so-called “competitive” practices: out-source and sub-contract the work to the lowest bidder; avoid terms and conditions of work that include social and health benefits; produce as cheaply as possible, without regard for the health and the employment stability of workers; maximize the profitability of production regardless of the irresponsible damage to the environment; and lessen the regulation of industry in order to compete with other producers and other countries to attract new investment and new business enterprises.

Returning specifically to the “education industry”, such competitive practices represent a total failure to put people before money. Students need stably employed instructors with the time, on-site offices, salary levels and terms and conditions of service that make them fully available to mentor and accompany their students on the journey to success.

In that same vein, the three major provincial parties (the governing Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP’ers) are jointly culpable of failing to recognize education as an “essential service” in the fullest legal and industrial relations senses of the term.

For that purpose, appropriate legislation is required in the broader over-riding interest of the whole society. The employers’ and workers’ rights have to take second place to the education rights of the students and to the financial interests of the students and their parents/guardians.

It is also important to place the appropriate share of blame on the community college/university administrations for their own misplaced priorities.

All those parties involved and affected by workplace disputes at educational institutions, have failed to consult widely on the time-frame and the operational aspects of a dispute resolution mechanism that balances as equitably as possible, the rights and responsibilities of all: government, opposition parties, educational institutions, instructors and other education workers, and last but not least, students.

While it true that all political parties are prone to play political games with major workplace disputes, the buck stops with the government.

On the one hand, the democratically elected government has the ultimate responsibility to protect the interests of the wider society in a timely and decisive manner.

Similarly, opposition parties have a responsibility to participate constructively in the resolution process, without wasting time on antics and delaying tactics that put scoring cheap political points ahead of advocating for positive and balanced results.

On the other hand, the democratically conscious electorate has a responsibility to act decisively at the appropriate time, if the politicians fail to assume too many of their responsibilities in a timely and decisive manner.