College Strike Could End This Weekend

After five weeks, it appears that college students could be returning to their classrooms next week.

In a bulletin released on Friday, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said that college faculty will return to work next week, although they are not yet sure what day that will happen.

This comes after the Ontario government announced plans to table new legislation that would require all of Ontario’s 24 colleges to resume operations, and subsequently allow students to complete the semester.

The legislation will, if passed (further debate on the issue will take place this afternoon), terminate the college strike and, further, prevent additional strikes or lockouts until the College Employer Council and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) sign a new collective agreement.

"As you know, the government announced on Thursday that they are legislating college faculty back to work. The union did not agree to back to work legislation, it was imposed by government," OPSEU said in the bulletin. "College faculty will return to work next week, although we will not know the exact date until back to work legislation passes. We believe they will succeed in passing the legislation into law as the Liberals have a majority government."

OPSEU has expressed disappointment with the Wynne government's push to pass back to work legislation, but says it's "hopeful" that its issues will be positively addressed in the arbitration process set out in the bill, adding that 86 per cent of faculty recently voted against a contract offer made by the College Employer Council.

The Wynne government moved on legislating faculty back to work on Nov. 16, after the council's offer was widely rejected after two days of voting.

OPSEU says that, regardless of what happens with the legislation, it believes it's made progress.

"Regardless of this result, we have made historic gains. We have inspired a movement against precarious work. We have made the case, beyond any doubt, that faculty academic freedom and collegial governance are critical to the integrity and quality of college education," it says in the bulletin.

Although an end to the strike will be a relief for many, many students have taken to Twitter to voice their displeasure over what is essentially a lost semester. Others have also taken issue with the government working to force striking faculty back into classrooms, including provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

"I will not support back to work legislation. I want students back in classrooms Monday, and I want that achieved through a deal," Horwath said in a statement. "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."

"The reason we're in this mess to begin with is because Premier Wynne and her Liberal government have failed to properly fund post-secondary education for years, putting Ontario last in Canada when it comes to per-student funding. The premier has the ability to call the legislature back, and the NDP is prepared to sit through the weekend to debate this move."

The Wynne government has proposed the creation of a "hardship fund."

The government has also instructed colleges to establish a dedicated fund with all savings from the strike,” reads a news release issued by the province. “The fund will be used to support students who have experienced financial hardships as a result of the strike and its parameters will be developed in direct consultation with students.”

According to Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews the fund will be used to support students who have experienced any sort of unexpected expenses from the strike, like additional rent costs.

"We are very disappointed that the parties were not able to resolve this contract dispute,” said Matthews. “It is clear that students have borne the brunt of this situation. And now after five weeks out of class, a significant number of students face the risk of not completing their academic studies if the strike were to continue. The public interest requires the government to take action to end the strike.”

Roughly 12,225 faculty - professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians included - began striking on Oct. 16. The strike has been ongoing for 34 days as of Nov. 18, and has affected more than 220,000 full-time students at Ontario colleges.

Students are also exploring a class action lawsuit with Charney Lawyers, aiming to get a refund on their tuition for the time they were not in class - for every student affected.

We'll keep you updated on details as they emerge.

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