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Ontario college strike rolls into week five — the longest the province has seen

Instructors begin “forced vote” Tuesday on contract offer their union rejected at the bargaining table.

Striking faculty stand on the picket line outside of Humber College, in Toronto on Oct. 16, 2017. Faculty at 24 Ontario colleges have been on strike for almost a month, affecting more than 500,000 students. Staff are voting on a deal with week.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Striking faculty stand on the picket line outside of Humber College, in Toronto on Oct. 16, 2017. Faculty at 24 Ontario colleges have been on strike for almost a month, affecting more than 500,000 students. Staff are voting on a deal with week.

College faculty begin their “forced vote” on a contract offer on Tuesday, as their strike — now in its fifth week — becomes the longest job action in their history.

At 30 days so far, it is longer than the three previous strikes — in 1984, job action lasted 24 days, in 1989 it went on for 28, and in 2006, 18 days.

The 1984 strike ended with back-to-work legislation, and for the subsequent two, both sides agreed to mediation or arbitration.

The College Employer Council, which bargains for the province’s 24 community colleges, made the request to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for the forced vote on its latest offer to the 12,000 full-time and partial-load faculty, who are represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

Voting ends Thursday and results should be available that day.

But experts have said the move is a risky one — given it is a proposal their union bargaining team already rejected during talks, which broke off a week ago despite a four-day blitz that had built up hope a negotiated deal could be reached.

The strike has not only impacted students, who are worried about losing their semester, but also those who work in food services positions on campus.

At Fleming College in Peterborough, Aramark has laid off about 40 part-time and student employees after closing four of seven locations, said Travis Doak, the university’s director of housing, food and conference services.

At George Brown College, food locations have been reduced and Chartwells “have laid off most of their staff,” said a spokesperson.

Even though the Liberal government hasn’t ruled out back-to-work legislation, during a union town hall OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas, said “they have also indicated that they would not be inclined to do that,” and that they “would be extremely reluctant to use” it because of possible legal challenges.

J.P. Hornick, the faculty union’s chief negotiator, has repeatedly called on the colleges to return to the bargaining table for a negotiated deal. She said the colleges “could have tested their offer before the strike happened, or even in the early days of the strike.”

When talks broke off, she said academic freedom was the key issue left to resolve.

The union has been urging members to vote against the offer for a number of reasons.

The vote requires 50-per-cent plus one approval, meaning if all 12,000 members voted, 6,001 would have to vote in favour.

A weekend letter sent from Conestoga College President John Tibbits to faculty says the two sides are “in uncharted territory now” given how long the strike has dragged on.

He said despite talk that “no students has ever lost an academic year as the result of a strike … we’re in uncharted territory now. No faculty strike has ever lasted this long and what’s happened in the past is not necessarily an accurate predictor of what will happen in the future.”

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