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Picketers at Algonquin College walk one of the picket lines outside Algonquin College. [Photo ©Emma Davis]

For Norma Sweeney, a hair salon owner in Carleton Place, a small town outside of Ottawa, helping students during the Ontario college strike with getting volunteer hours to put towards eventual apprenticeships is one way she can help.

Sweeney was listening to the radio the Friday before the strike began when the morning radio host was talking about how students should look for opportunities in their own communities.

On Facebook, Sweeney put out the call and asked for people interested in coming in to her salon to send her a message.

“I intend to keep track of how many hours they’re here and just keep it aside and try to figure out a way that they can make use of that,” Sweeney said.

She has apprenticed a few students from St. Lawrence College in the past and helped with co-op placements.

“The goal is to bring the young ones in and train them and have them work here as employees. … In my world, the best way to get what you want is to train them the way you want them,” Sweeney said.

Miranda Olsen is a St. Lawrence College student who is volunteering at Sweeney’s salon. Sweeney says these volunteer hours will go towards Olsen’s apprenticeship hours if she chooses to do it at her salon.

“It’s helped me a lot because before the opportunity came up I was just not doing anything and staying at home. This has pushed me to stay connected and keep up my knowledge of the trade, which is amazing,” Olsen said.

Olsen needs to do 2,000 apprenticeship hours in the industry following her one year fast-track hairstyling program at St. Lawrence.

Background on the college strike

The Ontario college strike has now reached the fourth week of picketing and strike action throughout the province.

About 500,000 students at 24 colleges are affected, and some colleges, such as Algonquin College, have said they will extend their semester in both upcoming terms therefore shortening their breaks if the strike continues past a certain date.

A picketer holds a sign reading “Colleges Have Lost Their Faculties!” as she walks along one of the picket lines at Algonquin College. [Photo © Emma Davis]

The college faculty takes a stand

The striking faculty is taking what David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), is a “strong stand” against the casualization of the sector and for academic freedom. The CAUT is affiliated with the Ontario Public Sector Employees, which represents the 12,000 contract academic staff at the colleges.

Enrico DeFrancesco, full-time faculty member in the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Algonquin College, poses near one of the picket lines. [Photo © Emma Davis]

This casualization refers to the hiring of more academic contract staff in part-time positions. Enrico DeFrancesco, a full-time faculty member at the School of Hospitality and Tourism in Algonquin College, says he has seen an erosion in the quality of education at colleges because of the increased use of part-time employees.

“Personal salaries are not what’s at issue in this strike, what we’re concerned about is the cuts that they’ve made and all the changes that they’re making are affecting the quality of education,” DeFrancesco said.

Robinson says the academic freedom, defined as the right of faculty to teach, do research and intramural and extramural speech, is not a strong tradition or well recognized in the college setting.

“I think there is a need for the colleges to recognize that academic freedom and collegial governance is absolutely critical. Increasing use and exploitation of contract academic staff is weakening the mission of colleges as well as universities,” Robinson said.

The colleges make an offer, call for vote

The 24 colleges are represented by the College Employer Council who made a final offer to the faculty on October 15. The Council called it “responsive to what the colleges heard at the bargaining table and fair to college faculty” in a news release.

“This strike is completely unnecessary and unfair to hundreds of thousands of students. We should have had a deal based on our final offer. It is comparable to, or better than, recent public-sector settlements with teachers, college support staff, hospital professionals, and Ontario public servants – most of which were negotiated by OPSEU,” said Sonia Del Missier, chair of the Colleges’ Bargaining Team.

The Council issued a press release Nov. 7 confirming the vote held by electronic ballot or telephone depending on voters’ choice.

“We are still over a week away from the vote results being known and we again request that the strike be suspended for the sake of 500,000 students. The suspension will allow faculty and students to return to class and not lose another week of classes,” Del Missier said in a news release from Nov. 7.

Until the strike is over, students will have to look for ways to keep occupied. Sweeney hopes to take on more students who can help her at the salon and thinks hands-on experience is crucial to the college students.

“They need it in order to work in this industry. … It’s the people skills that are important and you don’t get that in school,” Sweeney said. “You get that when you’re out in the community.”

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