College students speak out online amid Ontario faculty strike

Shut out of classes by the strike at Ontario’s 24 community colleges, and with no new talks planned, Ontario’s half-million college students are taking their fight online.

The province’s first college strike in the social media era has displaced students rallying behind hashtags on Facebook and Twitter — a new digital frontier that was barely mainstream the last time Ontario was hit by a provincewide college strike in 2006 - writes

Instagram was still four years off, Twitter was in its infancy and Facebook was only two years old when about 9,100 Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) faculty members in the college system waged a bitter, 18-day strike a generation ago.

But this time student voices are amplified, sharing and signing an online petition, for example, demanding a tuition reimbursement for missed classes.

“I think it’s had at least some impact on the conversation,” said Amir Allana, one of the creators of the petition and the #WePayToLearn hashtag.

“That’s been our goal all along, is to bring a student voice to the table and to highlight what the strike means for so many students.”

In Southwestern Ontario, the strike that began Monday has sidelined tens of thousands of students at three colleges, including London-based Fanshawe College.

Allana and his classmate Greg Kung, both in their final years of the paramedic program at Humber College in Toronto, launched the petition Oct. 11.

Since then it’s drawn more than 84,000 signatures.

“That first 2,000 were hard-earned signatures just by word of mouth,” said Kung, “but once momentum started, social media has done a great deal in ensuring that our message has been heard loud and clear.”

Governments have shown they can be sensitive to digital backlashes.

Nine years ago, amid an online protest that swelled to nearly 150,000 people in mere weeks, Ontario backed off a proposal that would have limited drivers 19 and under with a G2 graduated licence to only one teenage passenger. The proposal — part of a package of changes meant to reduce crashes involving young drivers — was savaged by older teenagers online.

So, will the government and the union for striking Ontario college faculty members, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, feel the students’ digital heat?

“Social media is often a good way for them to intersect with mass media in an interesting way,” said Cliffe Lampe, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s school of information.

“Mass media seems to pay attention to social media,” said Lampe, who has studied social media for more than 15 years.

Kung said he and Allana plan to meet with MPPs and OPSEU to help move along their online petition — it’s been endorsed by the union’s local at Fanshawe, representing more than 800 striking instructors, counsellors and librarians — to try to get results.

But the union remains no closer to returning to the bargaining table, said Darryl Bedford, an OPSEU bargaining team member and Fanshawe information technology instructor.

Bedford said more is needed to break the impasse.

“It’s going to take more than just the social media,” he said, adding online petitions can’t be officially presented at Queen’s Park. “The student voice should be heard.”

Provincewide, more than 12,000 college employees walked off the job Monday after OPSEU and the College Employer Council failed to reach a deal.

The union’s chief concern is job security and what it says is an increase in precarious work. It wants colleges to employ the same number of full-time faculty as the often lower-paid contract instructors.

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