TORONTO – Negotiations are set to resume Thursday in a colleges strike that has left 500,000 students out of class for more than two weeks.
More than 12,000 Ontario college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians went on strike Oct. 15. There have been no talks since then, but Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews announced Wednesday that both sides are returning to the table.
“This is an important step forward, but I’m going to continue to urge both parties to actually negotiate an agreement,” she said. “Students should be back in the classroom … as quickly as possible.”
Matthews would not say why the mediator called both sides back to the table or if one of the parties’ positions had changed to break the current impasse.
“The mediator is hopeful that they can reach a resolution which is why they’re back at the table,” she said. “I’ll leave the bargaining to the table but I’m hopeful they’re going to be able to find common ground.”
“I think they’re just ready to talk now. I have no new news.”
The colleges’ bargaining team said in a news release moments before Matthews’ announcement that they were calling on the mediator to bring both sides back to the table.
“This strike has gone on for too long,” Sonia Del Missier, the head of the bargaining team, said in a statement. “We will focus our efforts at the table and work very hard to reach a deal that ends the strike.”
Del Missier said she believes a settlement can be reached quickly and classes could resume early next week.
The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union, which represents the striking workers, said they are hopeful the colleges have changed some aspects of their position, since the mediator had said there wouldn’t be a return to the table unless one party’s position had changed.
“We want to hear what the council has to say and we’re ready to bargain if they’re ready to start addressing faculty issues,” said bargaining team chair JP Hornick.
“Realistically the ball is in their court at this point. We had moved our position several times over the course of bargaining.”
The union has called for the number of full-time faculty to match the number of faculty members on contract, but the colleges have said it would add more than $250 million in costs each year.
But Hornick said equally big issues are no cost items such as academic freedom.
The union had scheduled a rally for Thursday to call on the colleges to return to the bargaining table.
The colleges have put forward a four-year-agreement that offers a 7.75 per cent pay increase.
Several hundred students gathered at the Ontario legislature Wednesday to urge the parties to get back to the table. But Joel Willett, president of the College Student Alliance, which organized the demonstration, said their message shifted when they discovered talks will resume.
“Now the pressure is on to get a deal done before the middle of next week,” he said. “If they don’t have a deal in place by the middle of next week then we would … demand that an arbitrator be brought in to make a deal happen.”
Willett said students remain frustrated by the length of the labour dispute and feel caught in the middle.
“We want to be in class,” he said. “If we’re not in class we’re going to have our voices heard.”
Jorge Cordero, a student in George Brown College’s community worker program, came to the rally to tell the government it needs the colleges and union together to hammer out a deal.
“It’s been really frustrating and really stressful,” he said. “There have been some times were I’ve just been really depressed because I’m missing all this class, missing my placement and my classmates.”
Cordero worries that if the strike goes on much longer he will lose his semester and that will put his plans to go to university next year in jeopardy.
“Talk is cheap, tuition is not,” he said. “So, that’s one of the things that really bothers us.”
© 2017 The Canadian Press