by Matthew Pearson and Andrew Pinsent
Faculty members at Algonquin College are speaking out against their union’s leaders who are currently embroiled in a war of words with the college’s administration over the sorry state of labour relations on campus.
At issue is the high number of outstanding grievances the faculty union, Ontario Public Sector Employees’ Union Local 415, has against the college, not to mention the thousands of dollars being spent annually to settle issues at the arbitration table.
Last year alone Algonquin paid almost $450,000 in arbitrator and legal fees.
Stung by press coverage, college president Robert Gillett wrote employees this month to say the “unflattering picture” of Algonquin was unfair and didn’t reflect the college’s relationship with faculty.
He doesn’t appear to be alone in that opinion.
“Our union can be very aggressive,” said one member. “They will grieve a hangnail here.”
The professor spoke glowingly about working at Algonquin, but did not want her name published out of fear that her own union might come after her. The union represents full-time and partial load faculty at the college.
“It sounds like it’s the faculty versus the management. It’s not — it’s the union versus the management.”
During the last round of contract negotiations, the professor said union members were “aggressively hounded” to vote in favour of striking and felt they couldn’t openly oppose such action. “We didn’t feel we’d be safe doing that,” she said.
That year, 2010, Algonquin’s faculty union was one of 10 across the province where a majority of members voted against striking.
Another professor, Joe Banks, traced the rift between the union and management back even further, to 2006, when a bitter strike led the union to later call for Gillett’s resignation.
Asked if the current problems could really be a personal beef the union has with Gillett, Banks said, “I have that feeling. … I don’t know what the problem is. The union hasn’t communicated to me or, as far as I know, to other members why they are continuing to harbour this view of Bob Gillett,” he said.
Finding a solution is “vital” for the future of the college, the welfare of students and the overall morale of the faculty, Banks added.
“They need to find a common way to get in the same room together and play in the same sandbox like adults,” he said.
A third faculty union member said she has been “well taken care of” by the college, including being offered extra training and opportunities for growth, since arriving in 2006.
The professor, who also did not want her name published, said the money spent settling grievances could — and should — be directed elsewhere.
“We’re under budget crunch,” she said. “We’re being asked in all departments to cut back, to increase class sizes so we need fewer sections, and then to find we’re wasting money in other areas makes me crazy. Health services, student support services, student success specialists, retaining students, coaching students – that is where the money should be going,” she said.
Jack Wilson, the union’s vice-president, called fears of retribution a “red herring.”
“I can’t say I’ve heard that perception,” he said, adding no one raised concerns Thursday at a well-attended meeting with the membership.
“No one took exception to what we were doing,” Wilson said. “I think people realize now after what had been reported in the Citizen that the significance of these grievances with respect to staffing are not frivolous.”
The union cannot sanction or punish members who oppose its action, Wilson said.
“We don’t have that ability nor would we ever exercise it if we ever had it.”
First published in the Ottawa Citizen. Used here with permission.