Ontario is tabling back-to-work legislation to bring an end to a strike that has seen 500,000 students at the province's 24 colleges shut out of classes for five weeks, but it is not yet clear when students will be back in the classroom.
The New Democrats refused to agree to a government request for all parties to support the legislation, forcing the Legislature to debate the bill through the weekend.
The move comes after intense pressure from Premier Kathleen Wynne and Deb Matthews, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, failed to break an impasse between the schools and the union representing 12,000 striking college workers. It will be the first time in the 50-year history of Ontario colleges that striking faculty have been forced back into the classroom.
"We have said repeatedly that students have been in the middle of this strike for too long and it is not fair. We need to get them back to the classroom," Premier Wynne said in a statement.
The Conservatives will support the legislation, party Leader Patrick Brown said on Thursday evening.
"I called for action at the beginning of the strike to bring both sides back to the bargaining table. Kathleen Wynne could have stepped in earlier to fix this …," Mr . Brown said in a statement.
The NDP will not support the legislation, Leader Andrea Horwath said.
"I want students back in classrooms Monday, and I want that achieved through a deal," she said.
Thousands of students have protested the disruption, marching in front of the provincial Legislature and signing online petitions demanding a refund of their tuition fees for the missed classes. With a provincial election in six months, the legislation is a recognition by the government that it cannot allow students to lose their term. But the bill is likely to lead to vocal demonstrations from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents the 12,000 striking workers.
Earlier on Thursday, it warned the Liberal government against back-to-work legislation.
"The entire labour movement would come down on the government for [introducing it]," OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said earlier on Thursday. "We will be on the lawn at Queen's Park," he promised.
Thursday was a frenzied day of attempts by the province to force the two parties to agree to a negotiated settlement. In the morning, the result of a vote on the colleges' offer by professors showed that they had rejected its terms by an overwhelming mandate. Eighty-six per cent of instructors voted against it, with turnout at 95 per cent.
OPSEU had recommended that its members reject the offer. But the College Employer Council, which represents the colleges, put the proposed deal directly to union members, a move that provincial labour legislation allows only once during contract talks. It was a high-stakes gamble that failed and has directly led to the government being dragged into the dispute.
"I would say that both parties share the failure. It is a failure, make no mistake about it, and both parties need to recognize that their approach to this date has not resolved in any kind of success," Ms. Matthews said.
The government gave the union and the colleges a 5 p.m. deadline to make a deal or agree to binding arbitration. Two of the four college strikes in Ontario were settled through arbitration.
Opposition parties said the government should have brought the two sides together weeks ago. And it is government underfunding of postsecondary education that is the root cause of the labour strike, Ms. Horwath added.
"Premier Wynne and her Liberal government have failed to properly fund postsecondary education for years, putting Ontario last in Canada when it comes to per-student funding," she said in a statement.
The length of the strike has put their finances and future at risk, students said.
"The biggest frustration has been that my education and my potential for a successful future career is being leveraged in these negotiations," said Darren Conley, a student in the electronics systems engineering program at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. Mr. Conley's partner is an instructor at the college. "Both of us have been through an emotional roller-coaster. We are both exhausted and don't want to talk about it, but we have to because it's dictating our lives," he said.
Negotiations initially broke down over the percentage of faculty who are hired part-time, with the union wanting to see an even split between the ranks of full- and part-time staff. Faculty also want more academic freedom.
That was when the College Employer Council decided to put the vote directly to the union members.
Students are bracing for a long term and a lot of work when classes do resume.
Some colleges have extended classes to the week of Dec 18. Students who have to postpone holiday travel plans, pay extra rent or face other financial stresses will be able to apply for assistance, the province said last week. The grants will be funded from the savings colleges have accrued during the strike. Savings in the 2006 labour disruption were estimated at $5-million.