College students in Ontario will head back to class on Tuesday after the provincial government passed back-to-work legislation ending a five-week-long strike by professors.
The law, which came into force on Sunday after rare weekend sittings of the legislature, marks the first time in the 50-year-history of the province's colleges that striking faculty have been forced back to work. The bill passed third reading in a 39-18 vote, supported by the Liberals and Tories and opposed by the New Democrats.
"This is a last resort," Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, told the legislature. "We did everything we could to avoid being here."
Instructors are to report for work on Monday and classes will resume on Tuesday. Many colleges have announced plans to help make up lost time by trimming the holiday break, but student advocates said cramming five weeks of missed work into about two extra ones would be challenging.
"It's going to be a very busy rest of the semester for students. They have indicated to us that they are very frustrated," said Joel Willett, president of the College Student Alliance.
Student leaders are lobbying for a range of compensation options, including payouts for all 500,000 college students and full tuition refunds for those who decide to withdraw from their programs.
The provincial government recently announced a student hardship fund and is expected to announce funding details soon. The assistance, which will include grants for those who have to pay extra rent or postpone holiday travel, will be funded from the savings colleges have accrued during the strike from not paying instructors, Ms. Matthews has said. Savings in a 2006 labour disruption were estimated at $5-million.
Ms. Matthews said the government would review "why the system failed students." But she rejected suggestions the government should have legislated an end to the strike earlier, saying such a move would have certainly provoked a court challenge.
"I think we let them try for as long as we could but when they came back and said, 'There is not a glimmer of hope. We are in a deadlock,' that was when we moved to save the semester for students and I think we let it go long enough and it was time to bring them back," she told reporters.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, said he is considering whether to launch a constitutional challenge.
"I'll take a long hard look at it. On the face of it, it's a violation but there's of course many wrinkles," he said. "We will challenge it in one form or another."
New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath accused Premier Kathleen Wynne and her government of not doing enough to solve the dispute earlier, saying: "They sat on their hands until the last minute."
Colleges welcomed the government's intervention, saying it was necessary because all attempts to arrive at a negotiated solution had been exhausted.
"The strike has been incredibly disruptive to students and we needed to end it," Sonia Del Missier, chairwoman of the colleges' bargaining team, said in a statement.
Colleges said they would sort out curriculum adjustments with faculty. "Every single program is going to have a recovery plan," said Anne Sado, president of George Brown College.
Some colleges have already shortened the holiday break and cancelled reading week in an effort to make up for lost time.
In addition to forcing 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians back to work at the province's 24 colleges, Bill 178 sends outstanding issues to binding mediation-arbitration. The provincial legislature sat briefly on Saturday and Sunday after the New Democrats refused to agree to a government request for all parties to support the bill.
The government announced its intention to table back-to-work legislation on Thursday after meeting with both sides and failing to break the impasse with a negotiated settlement or an agreement to go to binding arbitration. The move came hours after the results of a vote on the colleges' offer by instructors showed they had overwhelmingly rejected it, with 86 per cent opposed.
The colleges said their offer included a 7.75-per-cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty. The union said it was not prepared to accept the concessions asked of it. 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-time and part-time staff. Faculty also want more academic freedom.
With a report from Simona Chiose