Talks have fallen apart between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union and the provincial government, leading some Guelph-Humber students to be concerned that the school could be headed toward another strike – just four years after the last one.

According to their newsletter, OPSEU is looking for a number of changes to contract language to address a range of alleged issues varying from problematic hiring practices for counselling staff to limited instructor autonomy over their course material. Now, OPSEU has said in a press release that they’ve been compelled to call for a strike vote, which will be discussed in virtual faculty meetings on Dec. 7 and 8.

In a recent tweet, OPSEU said that the Ontario Ministry of Labour “plans to shift employment services from public colleges to outside entities, including private providers,” adding that OPSEU says it’s “privatization by stealth that could harm Ontario students, businesses and workers.”

A survey of 30 students at the Guelph-Humber campus revealed that none of them were aware of a possible strike impending, while attitudes toward one are mixed. Only 11 per cent of students surveyed said that they “somewhat” pay attention to faculty drama, but 44 per cent are supportive of the faculty’s right to go on strike.

For students at Guelph-Humber, the ramifications of a strike are complicated – not only because in-person classes have just recently resumed, but because Guelph-Humber’s unique educational model further tangles employee contracting.

Post-secondary education in Ontario generally distinguishes between university and college, with their faculties represented by different unions. Universities, such as the University of Guelph, employ faculty represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Colleges, such as Humber, work with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU).

Guelph-Humber is an anomaly in the education system because it is a hybrid school, with some instructors contracted under Humber and some under Guelph. Because OPSEU are the ones who may strike, this means that the roughly 50 per cent of Guelph-Humber instructors represented by CUPE would not be affected. The instructors who would go on strike are partial load, meaning they teach between seven to 12 hours each week – part-time instructors who teach fewer than six hours would not.

This is the second time in under five years that faculty contracting disputes have presented a potential interruption to students’ education. In 2017, the fall semester was interrupted by a five-week strike that halted classes for about 500,000 students. Ultimately, the provincial government – at the time, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals – passed back-to-work legislation to get students back to class. By then, however, the semester had been significantly disrupted: at Guelph-Humber, all Humber classes went on hold and course schedules were rewritten to condense the material as much as possible. The semester was extended for a couple of weeks, but a number of the union’s initial complaints remained unresolved, with OPSEU and politicians such as Andrea Horwath expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of results.

This time, negotiations are taking place within an education system that has changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, Guelph-based instructors who weren’t striking were given the option of teaching remotely so they would not have to cross picket lines – though some instructors had to scramble to come up with ways to teach their courses online. Now, the faculty are much more familiar with distance learning. Mikayla Ottogali, a fourth-year student at Guelph-Humber, is hopeful that this new experience would make a temporary return to online learning easier.

“I heard so many horror stories from 2017. I think it would go smoother this time – still not an ideal situation for the students, but understanding how to run classes on online platforms is so helpful.”