Ontario’s colleges and striking faculty returned to the bargaining table Thursday, hours after workers voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract offer and continue their nearly five-week job action.
The province’s 12,000 college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians have been off the job since Oct. 15, leaving some 500,000 students out of class.
Bargaining talks broke down earlier this month, prompting the colleges to request the contract vote in what is now the longest strike in the colleges’ history.
Negotiations resumed Thursday afternoon at the request of Premier Kathleen Wynne, the union representing striking faculty said.
“The premier was very instructive and very helpful,” Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said after a meeting with Wynne and the advanced education minister.
“They’ve actually had rooms arranged for the parties to attempt to negotiate an agreement and a mediator on-site ready to go and the teams are just getting ready to go.”
The resumption of talks comes after 86 per cent of faculty rejected the final contract offer from Ontario’s 24 colleges. Thomas said the forced vote was a “bully move” by the colleges.
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Following the results of the vote, Wynne said she’d meet with college and union representatives to discuss how to “resolve this situation immediately and get students back to class where they belong.”
“Students have been in the middle of this strike for too long and it’s not fair,” she wrote in a statement. “We are looking at all of our options, but I am hopeful that an agreement to return students to class immediately can be reached by the parties.”
OPSEU had recommended the colleges’ contract proposal be rejected.
The colleges have said the offer included a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty, with language surrounding academic freedom remaining as the only major outstanding issue.
But the union said the offer contained “serious concessions” that were not agreed to, which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.
“This is exactly what we expected,” union bargaining team head JP Hornick said. “This was an unnecessary vote. It could have been taken back in September … and instead they chose to drag (the strike) on for an extra two weeks.”
The head of the colleges’ bargaining team said it will be looking to the provincially appointed mediator for direction.
“This is a terrible result for the 500,000 students who remain out of class,” Sonia Del Missier said in a statement. “I completely sympathize with our students who have been caught in this strike for more than four weeks.”
Earlier Thursday, Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews said the government was looking at a “range of options” to get students back into the classroom. She also had sharp words for both the colleges and the union and how they’ve allowed the strike to drag on.
“I would say that both parties share the failure, and it is a failure,” she said. “Both parties need to recognize that their approach to this date has not resulted in any kind of success. They have to focus on students.”
Matthews also said that the semester can still be salvaged.
“We are approaching the time where we will start to see people with lost semesters but we are not there yet,” she said. “We need to get them back immediately so that the semester can be saved.”
The provincial government has ordered the colleges to create a fund – using savings from the strike – to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the labour dispute. Advanced Education Matthews has estimated Ontario’s colleges have saved about $5 million so far.
Law firm Charney Lawyers filed a proposed class action against the 24 colleges Tuesday, saying 14 students have come forward to potentially stand as representative plaintiffs.
The notice of action alleges the colleges breached contracts with students by failing to provide vocational training and a full term of classes. It seeks full refunds for students who choose not to continue with their programs and refunds “equivalent to the value of the lost instruction” for students who do want to continue.
Reporters Momin Qureshi and Amanda Ferguson reported live earlier in the day from the OPSEU news conference.