Monday, November 13, 2017

A last-minute college strike policy from Kathleen Wynne's government may have been to avoid exposure of another major scandal

In public relations and media, it's common knowledge that when you have an item you're obliged to publicize but want to give as little attention as possible, you dump the news release on a Friday afternoon. That way the press, already getting ready for the weekend, will give it short shrift, if they notice it at all.

It was last Friday afternoon at 3:30, just as Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development staff were packing up and leaving for the long Remembrance Day weekend that a press release from Minister Deb Matthews announced that she was requiring funds be set up with savings from the ongoing Ontario College staff strike.

Under normal circumstances, one would assume a policy that would alleviate hardship on the 500,000 students affected by the strike would be something that Kathleen Wynne's government would want to give the utmost attention.

The fund would utilize at least some of the savings the Ontario government incurred from not paying college staff over the last few weeks. However there is good reason to believe that this fund was created less to help students than to help the Wynne government avoid another major scandal.

The week before last a source, who has extensive contacts and experience with both the Ontario College system and the Ontario government, approached me with the information that the government was intentionally allowing the College Strike to be prolonged.

The government could have quickly put through legislation that would have forced the colleges and the striking union, OPSEU, into binding arbitration and classes could have resumed right away. As it stands, half a million college students are currently at risk of losing a semester.

The current "corridor funding" model transfers approximately $1.5 billion dollars from the Ministry to the colleges each year, the majority of which is used for staffing costs. The Ontario government is in massive debt and each Ministry within it is feeling financial strains.

The strike, which has already lasted four weeks, was saving the government, and in particular, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, tens of millions of dollars it did not have to use to pay striking contract staff.

Last Monday, I put my source's allegation to Deb Matthews for a response. On Wednesday afternoon, I received an email from the Minister's office with the following response:

“Through all of this, our focus is on students and their learning. We want to see students back in the classroom as quickly as possible to continue their education. I understand that the College Employer Council has requested a vote on the employer’s last offer through the Ontario Labour Relations Board. I know students are feeling the effects of this strike deeply, and I share their concern. However, I am unable to comment further on the process of the OLRB.”

Written in political-ese, it uses a lot of words to basically say nothing. But what's most interesting about Deb Matthews' reply is not what she said but what she did not say. She did not deny the allegation that the government was prolonging the strike to save funds.

I informed the Minster's Issues management and Media Relations Team Leader that I would be writing a piece about the matter to be published at the beginning of this week. It was with some surprise that I saw, on Friday afternoon, a new email from the Minister's Team Leader with a link to the hastily devised proposal to re-purpose the savings to help students in need.

I sent an email to the Minister's spokesperson asking if extra costs arising from the strike, such as the ensuing salary increases to staff, will be excluded from the funds to help students. At the time of the publication of this post, I have not received a reply.

As it stands, Kathleen Wynne's government, which desperately needs the support of public service unions like OPSEU, which sees a prolonged strike as a way of getting the colleges to capitulate to their demands, has done nothing to legislate the strike to an end. That inaction places additional hardship on all of Ontario's college students as well as putting their academic year at risk.

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