Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called for the province's colleges and the union representing their instructors to return to the bargaining table on Thursday, and asked for both sides to maintain a media blackout, after the latter voted overwhelmingly against the latest contract offer.

"This has gone on for too long," Wynne said during an interview with CBC's Ontario Today, adding she wants students back in class "immediately." 

Kathleen Wynne

Premier Kathleen Wynne answers questions during CBC's Ontario Today. (CBC)

"When I say immediately… I would very much like to see students back early next week, so I mean immediately."

Wynne met with both sides for about half an hour on Thursday. 

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president Warren (Smokey) Thomas told reporters the meeting was "very instructive and very helpful" and that talks have already resumed.

"Any time we're talking I'm optimistic," he said. "They've had rooms arranged for the parties to attempt to negotiate an agreement, and a mediator on site."

Overwhelming rejection

The results of a two-day vote were made public late Thursday morning. According to OPSEU, the vote was 86 per cent in favour of rejecting the latest contract offer from the College Employer Council (CEC) issued on Nov. 6. Ninety-five per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, the union said.

"No one is surprised that college faculty rejected the council's forced offer. It was full of concessions and failed to address our concerns around fairness for faculty or education quality," JP Hornick, chair of OPSEU's faculty bargaining team, said in a statement.

"We stand with hundreds of thousands of college students when we say 'enough already.'"

Students and faculty have been out of the classroom for almost five weeks after some 12,000 college faculty, including professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians, voted to strike on Oct. 15. That left about 500,000 students in fear for their school year.

JP Hornick

JP Hornick, chair of OPSEU's faculty bargaining team, at a news conference on Thursday. (CBC)

Talks between the two sides broke down on Nov. 4, and two days later CEC asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a vote. The next day, the board scheduled the vote for this week.

In a statement, Sonia Del Missier, chair of the colleges' bargaining team, noted that while faculty have "exercised their democratic right" by voting to reject the deal, "this is a terrible result for the 500,000 students who remain out of class."

She added: "I completely sympathize with our students who have been caught in this strike for more than four weeks. This strike has gone on for too long — and we still need to resolve it and get our students and faculty back in class."

Details of the offer

The contract offer included a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits (including extended pregnancy and parental leave) and measures to address concerns over part-time work, according to CEC.

But the union countered Thursday that concessions that were in the contract offer at the end of September remained in the latest one, concessions that "undermined any possibility" of improving conditions for precarious workers. About 80 per cent of college faculty are part-time.

An OPSEU representative had said earlier this week that the concessions focused on the process for hiring full-time faculty, including provisions that would allow faculty to exceed overtime limits and make it harder to take professional development days.

On Thursday, Hornick also said the issue of academic freedom — allowing professors more leeway in decision-making in the classroom — remained a sticking point.

Hornick said the union's mandate is to improve working conditions for contract and part-time faculty and improve processes so there is more balance between faculty and administration in decision-making for the classroom.

The vote result, Hornick said, "is a resounding indictment of the bullying processes that management has engaged in this round. But it is also an indictment of those concessions and a recognition of the detrimental effect they would have on the college system."

Class-action lawsuit launched

Earlier this week, a proposed class-action lawsuit was launched on behalf of students. The notice of action, filed by law firm Charney Lawyers, alleges the colleges breached contracts with students by failing to provide vocational training and a full term of classes.

The suit 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.

A petition, launched by students before the strike pushing for a refund for each day of class missed, now has over 134,000 supporters.

The Ontario government has ordered that a fund be created for students who experience financial hardship due to the strike. The money will come from unpaid wages to striking staff and other savings from not operating the schools.

With files from Julia Whalen and Mike Crawley