Premier Dalton McGuinty is encouraging both sides to work to avoid a strike at Ontario's two dozen community colleges that would affect at least 200,000 students.

About 9,000 college instructors will vote Wednesday on whether to give their union a strike mandate after five months of talks with the colleges broke down Dec. 15.

Ted Montgomery, chairman of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union's bargaining team, which represents faculty members, said in an interview Tuesday if members vote in favour of a strike, a walkout wouldn't happen for at least a month.

The premier said he had faith in both sides to uphold the interests of students and spoke about the effects any job action could have on Ontario's economy.

"In a knowledge-based economy, this is a not just about the interests of the students, it's about our collective interests in having a highly skilled and educated workforce," McGuinty said following an event in Chatham, Ont.

"Whenever you put learning on hold, you're not just compromising the interests of the students and families affected, you're compromising our shared interests in a bright future."

Key issues are workload, academic freedom and management's decision in November to impose its offer on the teachers without a vote, said Montgomery. Workload was also the top issue when college teachers went on strike for three weeks back in 2006, he said.

The previous contract expired Aug. 31, 2009.

Disagreement over pay

The union wants a 2.5 per cent pay increase in each year of a three-year contract. The colleges offered 1.75 per cent in each of the first two years and two per cent in the last two years of a four-year deal.

"We think four years is too long, given the trend in the economy," said Montgomery.

The Bank of Canada has said it expects inflation to return to the two per cent target in the second half of 2011. 

The colleges' offer would see instructors falling behind in their wages, said Montgomery.

Both sides indicated a willingness to resume talks although none are scheduled.

"We'd be happy to come back to the table and I anticipate after the strike vote we will be back at the table," said Rachael Donovan, chairwoman of the colleges' bargaining team.

"There's no need for a strike," she added. "But we need the union to come back to the table to modify its position to a range that we can settle on."

The union is asking for $218 million in concessions which the colleges can't afford, said Donovan.

The colleges' offer was fair, included modest changes to workload and would bring the maximum salary for full-time faculty to $103,975 by Sept. 1, 2012, she said.

Students concerned

The possibility of a strike has students like Graeme McNaughton, 21, worried. The Humber College journalism student started a Facebook group called Ontario College Students Against A Strike, which had more than 22,700 members by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

More than 4,100 of them had signed his online petition, calling on colleges and the union to avert a strike that students fear could cost them their semester.

The petition was presented to union and college representatives over the lunch hour, McNaughton said. Students want both sides to resume bargaining, he said.

"I'm worried and I think just about any student is worried after we've seen what happened at York last year. The University of Windsor had a similar situation as well where students were out of the classroom," said McNaughton.

The Ontario government brought in legislation last January to end a bitter three-month strike at Toronto's York University that left 50,000 students out of class. An 18 day-strike at the University of Windsor in 2008, affecting 16,000 students ended after a ratification vote.

"We don't want to see the same thing happen here, where instead of in that case it was one university, this is all publicly funded colleges in the province," said McNaughton. "So it's in the hundreds of thousands of students that would be locked out."

Following the strike at York, the students' term was extended. The problem with that, McNaughton said, is students miss out on summer jobs.

A strike would have less of an effect on the 300,000 students who attend college night classes because most of their teachers work part time, aren't part of the union and wouldn't go on strike, said Montgomery.