Ontario’s Liberal government is moving to introduce back-to-work legislation that would end a nearly five-week strike by college faculty, though opposition from the NDP means it may not happen quickly.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said unanimous support of the legislation would have meant students could return to class on Monday morning.
“We have said repeatedly that students have been in the middle of this strike for too long and it is not fair,” she said in a statement. “We need to get them back to the classroom.”
But the NDP blocked a government attempt to table the bill by refusing unanimous consent to allow the Liberals to do so Thursday evening after the normally scheduled time period for introducing legislation.
Some 500,000 students have been out of class since the strike by 12,000 college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians, began Oct. 15. It is now the longest strike in the colleges’ history in Ontario.
The legislature will now reconvene Friday, when it does not normally sit, and the Liberals will again try to introduce the legislation in the afternoon. If it is again blocked, they say they intend to sit through the weekend.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said her party does not support any legislation that takes away workers’ rights.
“It looks like Kathleen Wynne wanted to use anti-worker back-to-work legislation all along,” Horwath said in a statement, criticizing the premier for what she called five weeks of inaction.
Horwath also wants students back in the classroom Monday, she said, but wants that to happen through a deal.
NDP House Leader Gilles Bisson said the government has the tools to pass the legislation over the weekend.
Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews said with unanimous consent the legislation could have been introduced and sped through first, second and third readings Thursday night.
“We could have done it in 10 minutes and then students would know they’re back in the classroom on Monday,” she said. “It was very disappointing that the NDP decided to block it.”
The legislation would have to pass on Friday for the province’s 24 colleges to prepare for classes to resume Monday, Matthews said.
The College Employer Council, which represents the colleges, said it supports the introduction of back-to-work legislation as soon as possible.
The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the striking faculty, said Thursday morning that he would not support any back-to-work legislation.
“From my perspective, if they do that, the labour movement has to oppose that,” said Warren (Smokey) Thomas. “Labour rights are enshrined in law and to this point in time they’ve respected the collective bargaining process.”
Wynne had asked the colleges and the union to return to the bargaining table Thursday after workers voted to reject a contract offer, but within several hours the two sides reached an impasse when they could not agree to binding arbitration.
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.
Under the proposed back-to-work legislation, the strike would end and all outstanding issues would be referred to binding mediation-arbitration.
Earlier Thursday, Matthews had sharp words for both the colleges and the union.
“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. Matthews has estimated Ontario’s colleges have saved about $5 million so far.
Hu Zhengtao, an international student from China attending George Brown College to study business and marketing, said the labour disruption has thrown his plans to graduate in December and return home into serious doubt. He spoke with Matthews on Thursday to express his concern about the strike.
“Because of the strike I don’t know when I can finish my classes and graduate,” he said. “The school has nothing to say right now. … They say they’re planning but can’t say exactly what they’re going to do because they don’t know if the strike will keep going.”
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.