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Canada Bill 148 addresses striking Ontario college teachers’ demands: minister

Instructors at George Brown College's midtown campus near Casa Loma walk the picket line on Oct. 16, 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Some of the changes to working conditions that are being demanded by striking college instructors would be ushered in when Bill 148 is passed, says Deb Matthews, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

Ms. Matthews was speaking at Queen's Park as 12,000 instructors at Ontario's 24 colleges hit the picket lines for the first day in a college strike that is only the second such labour disruption in the sector in the past 20 years.

Lower levels of pay and poor job security for part-time professors are two of the key issues that have led to a walkout by college faculty. Under Bill 148, which includes a controversial $15 minimum wage, employers could not pay lower wages to part-timers or those employed through a temp agency. The bill is in second reading.

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"Part-time workers need to get paid [the same rate ] as full-time workers for the same work, so you can't discriminate against part-time workers. [Colleges] know that the legislation … will apply," Ms. Matthews said. The government will consider whether it will need to increase funding to help colleges and universities meet the equal pay provisions, she added.

"We will be looking at how to make sure that everyone can comply," she said.

Bill 148 has been hotly debated. Some employers' groups say its minimum-wage provisions will lead to more automation and fewer jobs. But the bill does not address the ratio of part-time to full-time workers an employer may hire.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents college instructors, has demanded an equal split between the two categories. That would reduce the current levels of part-time professors by at least 20 per cent and lead to some increases in full-time instructors.

"Our position is that you are going to have to become a better employer on equity with Bill 148. Why not step up now?" said JP Hornick, chair of OPSEU's bargaining team for the college professors.

Agreeing to a set ratio is impossible, said the College Employer Council, the body that negotiates labour agreements for all colleges in Ontario.

"We don't bargain ratios; that's a big stumbling block to us getting any potential settlement," said Don Sinclair, the CEO of the council. "This bargaining is about enshrining a rigid staffing ratio that [affects] how you conduct your operations, and we are not prepared to bargain that."

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While the two sides are in a standoff, students at some colleges were using the time out of the classroom to study for exams. No classes were held at George Brown College in mid-town Toronto, but the school remained open and the library was packed. This week had been expected to be busy, students said.

"We were supposed to have three mid-terms tomorrow, but we stayed up until midnight waiting to see if there was a strike," said Jacob McIsaac, who is in his third year of construction management at George Brown. His classmate, Mark Lennox, was already thinking ahead. "We have a co-op this summer and we are supposed to let them know that we have four months available, and if the strike is a month long, we have to change all that," he said.

Some students said that if the strike lasted beyond a week, they would demand fee refunds. An online student petition asking for refunds of $30 a day is close to garnering 50,000 signatures. More than 230,000 full-time students attend Ontario's colleges.

Most of the professors picketing outside the school said they had been working contract to contract for years. They had to apply for each seven- to 15-week contract they wanted, were not paid in the summer or during other holiday breaks, and sometimes found out that they had a course less than a week before classes began.

None wanted to give their full names, saying they fear losing work.

One instructor said in the time she had been teaching, only two new hires were made after a lot of retirements, and that most staff are sessional instructors.

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Others said moving to full-time work would not only help them plan classes better, but give them access to benefits such as pensions.

The Ontario government has suggested it is increasingly willing to respond to demands from faculty unions to address what they say is a growing reliance on temporary and contract employees for classroom teaching. In June, Ms. Matthews told colleges and universities in a letter that Bill 148 asks them to strike a balance between recruiting professionals to teach on contract and ensuring "fair employment" for educators.

But it is not clear if the bill would dictate any changes to employment conditions in postsecondary institutions. Pay gaps between full and part-time workers would still be allowed as long as they are justified by merit or the number of hours worked.

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