Wynne government to legislate striking Ontario college faculty back to work

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's office says her government is presenting legislation that will end the province's college strike, after negotiations reached an impasse.

Tory Leader Patrick Brown says his party will support Liberal move to get students back to class

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

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's office said Thursday her government will table legislation that will end the province's college strike, after negotiations reached an impasse.

Wynne met with both the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) and the College Employer Council (CEC) on Thursday after union members overwhelmingly voted against a contract offer.

"I asked them to work together to find a path forward that would see students return to class by Monday," Wynne said in a news release.

"That's why we are immediately tabling legislation that would end the dispute and return Ontario college students to the classroom where they belong. Under the proposed legislation that we're introducing today, all outstanding issues would be referred to binding mediation-arbitration."

Wynne met with both sides earlier in the day and gave them a 5 p.m. ET deadline to reach an agreement, which they missed. 

Blocked by NDP

Because of the tight deadline, Wynne's Liberals needed to pass the back-to-work legislation immediately with unanimous support, but it was blocked by the NDP. 

"It looks like Kathleen Wynne wanted to use anti-worker, back-to-work legislation all along. She spent barely an hour at the table today, after doing nothing for five long weeks," Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement.

Horwath said she also wants to see students back in the classroom on Monday, but she wants to see a deal struck first.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown backed Wynne's Liberals legislation, saying he has made his concerns known since day one that it is not fair to leave more than 500,000 students caught in the crossfire. 

"My message to the premier is this: As her meeting with both sides failed to produce concrete results and a negotiated settlement, we will support back-to-work legislation to get students back in class on Monday," Brown said in a statement.

"It is the right thing to do for students."

The government will ask Ontario's Legislature to meet again on Friday at 3 p.m and "sit throughout the weekend until the legislation is passed," according to Kyle Richardson, press secretary for the province's attorney general.

OPSEU members rally outside the Labour Relations Board in Toronto on Thursday. (Mike Karapita/Twitter)

Overwhelming rejection

The results of a two-day vote were made public late Thursday morning. According to OPSEU, the vote was 86 per cent against the offer, which the CEC issued on Nov. 6, one day after talks broke down. 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.

The union said those concessions "undermined any possibility" of improving conditions for precarious workers. About 80 per cent of college faculty are part-time. An OPSEU representative said earlier this week 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.

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

Both sides respond

According to the CEC, the 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. 

It says OPSEU asked for a $5,000 bonus for each striking faculty member. 

"Today's bargaining should have been focused on getting students back to class, but OPSEU chose the path of signing bonuses for faculty and a dismissal of arbitration," said Sonia Del Missier, chair of the CEC bargaining team, in a statement.

At a news conference on Thursday night, Hornick said the union had asked for compensation for their members for the last two weeks of the strike. She said it would not be $5,000 per person, but would range in amount from member to member.

"That is ridiculous for them to call it anything other than compensation for the extra time that they dragged this out. They let the clock run out rather than actually negotiate," she said. 

OPSEU also called for the CEC to be disbanded.

"It's a 50-year-old management structure that's been broken for 49 of those 50 years," said Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of OPSEU. 

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.

Talks between the two sides broke down on Nov. 5.