Ontario colleges quiet on strike contingency plans

Student anxiety grows as Feb. 11 strike deadline draws near

Jody MacDonald lost his job in the recession, applied for Ontario’s Second Career Program and received grant money to go back to school. He is now in his first year of a Registered Practical Nursing program at St. Lawrence College.

Faculty will be voting on the colleges’ final offer on Feb. 10. If it fails, faculty are set to strike on Feb. 11, and that could ruin Jody’s chances at a fresh start. “I am 40. I don’t have time like the majority of the people in college have. I have a mortgage and bills, [and have been] just barely scraping by for two-and-a-half years. A strike will impact heavily, to the point of possibly throwing the year of education I have away and going to work flipping burgers,” he says.

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Vikki Brannan is two months away from graduating with a diploma in the Social Service Worker program at Durham College. She’s feeling the pressure of graduation coming, but a strike would mean that her program could possibly not finish on time, and that she could lose her work placement. “My biggest concerns are redoing the term, borrowing more money to do so, losing my day care [placement] space and not graduating in April,” she says. “It’s very difficult to put alternate plans in place with two months left.”

Perhaps, most of all, students like MacDonald and Brannan are frustrated that they’re largely being kept in the dark about possible plans should a strike occur. “My college has not informed us of their so-called contingency plans, although they assure us that these are in place. I have no idea what these are, in terms of finishing the term and attending [my] placement,” Brannan says.

But, according to Emily Marcoccia, director of marketing and communications at Fanshawe College, the colleges have good reason to keep quiet. “We have plans, but they won’t be provided in detail until the urgency is imminent or upon us,” she says. “We just don’t want to mislead students into thinking there’s another way to learn. They need to go to class.”

Marcoccia says that Fanshawe’s pre-existing emergency operations control group has been working on contingency plans since last fall and that students will be notified immediately once the likelihood of a strike is forthcoming. “We’re fully planning that there isn’t a strike, but it would be unreasonable to not have a group working on this.”

She notes that the 2006 college faculty strike has college administrators more prepared than ever to deal with the ramifications again, and ensure students finish out their year as undisrupted as possible. “We are telling our students that in the past, no Fanshawe College student has lost their year as the result of a strike, unless they were in poor academic standing before the strike began,” she says. “Anxiety levels have risen dramatically, though,” she adds. “All the colleges are in the same position in this regard. But it does cause our students anxiety who want to complete their year, do their exams and get those jobs,” she says.  “That’s what colleges do; they get people jobs.”

Brannan describes her campus as “sombre and tense,” explaining that it’s hard to concentrate in class.

A strike for Second Career students, like MacDonald, could mean a loss of funding should negotiations continue for some time. “Funding is set for a certain amount of time. Some who have paid fear losing their money. We just want to learn and move to the next step,” he says.

Students are also concerned about a “second York” happening. The bitter labour dispute halted classes for 45,000 students at the Toronto university for almost three months last year and the semester was extended into June. It is the longest-running strike at an English-speaking, Canadian university.

For Humber College student Graeme McNaughton, this is a big source of anxiety, but he’s choosing to remain optimistic. “With both sides seeming willing to avert a strike, whether it be the colleges putting a proposal to a vote, or the union willing to go to binding arbitration, I don’t believe that this will be a concern,” he says. “Then again, people’s minds do change.”

There are some students, like Cameron Switzer at Humber College’s Guelph campus, who are less concerned about an actual strike, and more concerned about what could come after. “I have a lot of friends who go to York, and the strike there really affected them. Some of them didn’t get the summer placements they wanted because they couldn’t guarantee a start date until it was too late,” he says.

And, there are students like Sandy Blakeley at Durham College who believe that a strike during such hard economic times is irresponsible. “It’s simple math: The nation as a whole lost money, but there are still individuals who try to push the system,” he says. “Most teachers like to say it’s not about money … but in the end, the students will be paying the price for inaction.”

“The general mood is that they will find common ground before it’s too late, and if a strike does happen, it won’t be severe enough to result in a lost semester,” Blakeley says. “But, after seeing the York strike, I guess anything is possible.”