News Provincial

UPDATED: Wynne steps in

Sabrina Bedford

By Sabrina Bedford, The Recorder and Times

The provincial government was tabling back-to-work legislation late Thursday after faculty across the province overwhelmingly rejected the employer’s latest offer.

In a provincewide vote that began Tuesday and came to a close Thursday morning, 86 per cent of faculty voted to reject the College Employer Council’s Nov. 6 offer, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said.

But by Thursday evening, after hours of negotiation in which the two sides could not come to an agreement, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced she plans to table legislation that will end the province’s college strike.

“I asked the parties to work to resolve the issues between them, either through a negotiated agreement or by submitting to voluntary binding arbitration. All agreed to attempt to find a resolution by 5 p.m. today,” Wynne said in a written statement late Thursday.

“Unfortunately, we have heard from the parties that they have reached an impasse in negotiations and that they have not agreed to binding arbitration. That’s why we are immediately tabling legislation that would end the dispute and return Ontario college students to the classroom where they belong.”

The strike, which began on Oct. 15 and has now become the longest college strike in Ontario’s history, affects more than 500,000 students provincewide, including about 900 students at the St. Lawrence College campus in Brockville.

The two sides are at odds about what the union is calling an imbalance of precarious and part-time work, job security and academic freedom.

At St. Lawrence College specifically, 77 per cent of the faculty work on a part-time or contract basis, a point faculty says it is fighting to change for the younger generation. 

“It’s not much fun being out here for six weeks, but there’s a bigger principle behind it,” St. Lawrence College faculty member Ed Bell said from the picket line in Brockville Thursday. 

“We’re hopeful we can get this resolved and get us back to work.”

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 outstanding issue.

But the union says the offer contained “serious concessions” that were not agreed to, which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.

“It’s not about the money,” Bell said.

“If we’re going to keep young people (in Eastern Ontario) we’ve got to do something that helps them long term. That’s the bottom line.”

Glenn Vollebregt, president of St. Lawrence College, said earlier Thursday the union and employer were at the table, under a media blackout.

“It’s my hope they will get a negotiated settlement so we can get our students and faculty back in class immediately,” he said at the time.

When asked whether he thinks the province should legislate faculty back to work, something that was in its early stages at Queen’s Park later Thursday, he said he didn’t want to speculate while discussions were ongoing but reiterated the importance of coming to an agreement in a timely manner.

“We need to end this strike now for our students at St. Lawrence and for the 500,000 students across the province who are not in class right now.”

Bell agreed, saying he also hopes the two sides would get back to the table and negotiate in good faith. 

“We’d like to get back in the classroom,” he said. 

The forced offer vote was a one-time option allowed under the Colleges Collective Bargaining Act, OPSEU said. 

The union, which represents the 12,000 workers, had recommended the colleges’ contract proposal be rejected.

The strike, which involves college professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians, began Oct. 15 and has left some 500,000 students out of class.

Talks between the colleges and the union broke down on Nov. 4, prompting a request for the final offer vote.

- With files from The Canadian Press