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Ontario colleges, faculty clash ahead of contract vote in labour dispute

Faculty members walk the picket line at a Humber College campus in Toronto, on Nov. 8, 2017.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's colleges and the union representing striking faculty members are accusing each other of spreading misinformation ahead of a contract vote in the labour dispute that has left half a million students out of class for a month.

Some 12,000 Ontario college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians haven't been at work since Oct. 15.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the striking faculty, said the dispute was the longest strike in the colleges' history.

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"It's the only time in the history of the colleges the semester has been under threat," Kevin MacKay, a member of the OPSEU faculty bargaining team said Monday. "And I'm telling you, if the strike doesn't end this week, the semester is under threat – serious threat."

The council representing the province's 24 colleges said acceptance of the latest contract offer would mean students could be back in the classroom as early as next Tuesday.

Talks between the College Employer Council and the union broke down last week, with the council asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a vote on its offer.

With the vote set to begin Tuesday and end Thursday, the council was reaching out directly to faculty to address what is called the union's "continued misrepresentation" of the contract offer. The council launched a new website – www.collegevote.ca – and posted an audio webcast on Monday in which it discussed the contents of the offer.

The colleges said the offer includes a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits – including extended pregnancy and parental leave, and a $500 increase in coverage for paramedical services – and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty.

Sonia Del Missier, the chair of the colleges' bargaining team, said all major issues in the offer have been agreed on by both sides except for language surrounding academic freedom.

But the union said the offer contains "serious concessions" that were not agreed to, and which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.

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Among them are concessions around the process for hiring full-time faculty, provisions that would allow faculty to exceed overtime limits and make it harder to take professional development days, MacKay said.

"There's no way we agreed to those things," he said.

The union has said its main point of contention has been the level of input college instructors have into the way courses are taught and evaluated, and MacKay said the colleges' attempt to address the issue is worse than if they had done nothing.

"It's not about academic freedom at all, it's actually about all the ways in which you can get in trouble if you say the wrong thing," he said.

Del Messier, meanwhile, said the offer "enshrines academic freedom," which she called the only key issue still outstanding.

"From the union's perspective, they talk about academic control and they've really determined that it's got to be either (faculty) or (management). And from our perspective, it's not an either/or," she said.

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"When we look at how the colleges set up programs and how they continue to ensure programs are relevant, you need the input of your key stakeholders," including employers, industry representatives and graduates, she said.

The Ontario government has ordered the colleges to create a fund to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the strike.

Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews has said the government wants to see students return to the classroom as quickly as possible.

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