News / Canada

Ontario colleges ask faculty to suspend four-week strike

Talks falter after more than four days, as strike by instructors drags on into fourth week affecting more than 300,000 students.

Both the colleges and unions have come under increased pressure as the strike continues, with the premier and post-secondary minister expressing frustration that no one was at the bargaining table.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Both the colleges and unions have come under increased pressure as the strike continues, with the premier and post-secondary minister expressing frustration that no one was at the bargaining table.

Ontario’s colleges are asking faculty to “suspend” their weeks-long strike while appealing to the province’s labour relations board to arrange a direct vote on their latest offer.

The College Employer Council (CEC) accused the union of having “stonewalled” recently renewed negotiations and said it has addressed concerns by “enhancing full-time employment opportunities,” boosting academic freedom, increasing pay and job security.

But in a memo to members obtained by the Star, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said the colleges’ move would only extend their job action.

“Instead of negotiating a fair settlement at the table, council has called for a forced vote on an offer that largely peddles the same concessions that they have been pushing for months,” said the memo.

“Instead of addressing the core issues of fairness and quality, council has put forward proposals that will have devastating negative consequences on the college system” and by “forcing a vote at this late date, are recklessly playing with student’s lives, and delaying any potential end to this strike.”

But Sonia Del Missier, who heads the colleges’ bargaining team, said “OPSEU’s insistence on continuing the strike is a terrible outcome for students and faculty.

“We addressed all faculty priorities and the offer that is available for faculty right now — on the table — should have ended this strike.”

The council has asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to arrange for instructors to directly vote on their latest offer, which the union rejected at the bargaining table. That vote should happen in about a week. In the meantime, colleges are asking teachers to return to work.

“We need to end this strike and get students back in the classroom. We have asked the labour board to schedule a vote and let our faculty decide,” said Del Missier in a written release.

But J.P. Hornick, who heads the union bargaining team, told the Star “council walked away and called a forced offer vote which they could have done Sept. 15.”

The OPSEU memo says that the two sides had “only one no-cost item remaining: academic freedom, the right of faculty to make decisions in our classrooms. We had negotiated to eliminate all immediate monetary costs. We are .25% apart on salary. This offer takes us backwards not forwards.”

Hopes had been high for the talks, which resumed last Friday.

All agreed to go back to the table last week after the colleges issued a written statement saying they had asked the provincially appointed mediator to call the sides back.

The mediator had previously told the CEC and OPSEU that unless there was an indication one party was willing to budge, that they remained too far apart and returning to the table was pointless.

The council bargains for the province’s 24 community colleges. OPSEU represents full-time professors as well as partial-load instructors, who teach anywhere from seven to 12 hours a week.

The union has said it is fighting for more full-time jobs amid an alarming growth in contract and precarious teaching positions at their institutions. They were also seeking a pay hike, as well as greater academic control over their courses.

The colleges’ final offer had provided for a boost in salary by 7.75 per cent over four years, improvements to benefits, and some contract language giving preference to full-time positions.

However, the colleges had rejected the union’s call for 50 per cent of jobs to be full-time, saying it would cost too much and not give them the flexibility they need for programming.

Both sides came under increased pressure as the strike continued, with Premier Kathleen Wynne and Matthews expressing frustration that no one was even at the bargaining table as student anxiety was growing.

Last week, Wynne told reporters “we really do not want students to lose their term. And you know my expectation and the minister’s expectation is that both sides of this negotiation will find a way to get back to the table to re-engage because that’s where the agreement has to be forged.”

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Colleges have already been making post-strike plans, including adding hours to the academic day or extending classes beyond the end of the semester, typically a week, to make up for the lost time.

When the strike was called, a number of colleges were on a scheduled week-long break, so students have so far missed two full weeks of classes.

However, of particular concern are students in apprenticeship and other programs that require a certain number of hours before provincial certification exams can be written.

At the time of the strike, the colleges estimated the union’s proposals would cost an extra $250 million, which they can’t afford, and would lead to the loss of thousands of contract jobs.

By head count, full-time faculty represent one-third of academic staff, and when measured by teaching hours they represent roughly half.

Ontario’s college system is among the lowest funded in Canada on a per-student basis.

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