By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
The longest college strike in the province’s history has come to an end.
Ontario’s 500,000 college students have returned to class after back-to-work legislation was passed on Sunday (Nov. 19).
More than 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians walked off the job Oct. 16. The striking faculty rejected the latest offer from the College Council Employer (CEC) on Nov. 16 by an 86 per cent margin.
The provincial Liberals originally tried introducing the back-to-work legislation later that evening, but were blocked by the NDP leading to overtime debate in Queen’s Park over the weekend.
Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president Warren Thomas has indicated the union may attempt a constitutional challenge of the legislation.
Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews has ordered the province’s 24 colleges to develop a ‘hardship fund’, using monies saved from not paying striking staff, to assist students who encountered financial difficulty due to the strike.
Full-time domestic and international students will be eligible to receive up to $500 for incremental, unexpected costs they incurred, such as additional child care fees, rebooked train or bus tickets or rent. It is expected students will be able to apply to their college for financial assistance through the fund starting this week.
Students who decide to withdraw from studies because of the strike will receive a full tuition refund. Apprentices can also apply for a full refund of classroom fees if they are unable to complete their in-school training for reasons related to the strike.
In addition, students currently receiving OSAP who face extended semesters will receive additional support for the length of the extension
The month-long work stoppage will continue having other consequences for students moving forward, as Durham College has cancelled its reading week, originally scheduled for Feb. 26 to March 2, 2018, to make up for the lost class time.
Granville Anderson, MPP for the riding of Durham, says while he would have preferred to see OPSEU and the CEC reach an agreement on their own, it was time for the government to step in.
“We had to make a decision to get the kids back to class without the consequences of losing their year,” Anderson told The Oshawa Express.
While some called on the Liberals to take action much earlier, Anderson says he feels they would be criticized for “trampling on the rights of workers.”
Anderson says he was disappointed with the actions of the NDP.
“We have a responsibility. They seem to have their responsibility only to their union members,” Anderson states. “We need to find that balance where we make sure instructors are well-compensated and their rights are protected and we have to make sure the students get the education they are entitled to.”
However, Whitby-Oshawa MPP Lorne Coe says fault falls directly on the Liberals.
“[The strike] reached record lengths because a lack of leadership shown by Kathleen Wynne and her government,” Coe says. “At the very start of the labour dispute, we called on the Wynne Liberals to step in and bring both sides to the table. They waited until the last minute.”
During Question Period on Monday (Nov. 20), Coe asked the Premier three times if her government would commit to matching any funds provided by colleges to students through the hardship fund.
“Let me tell you, I’ve heard from countless students that they’re disillusioned. They’ve lost faith in the democratic process. The government needs to put money where their mouth is,” Coe said. “Once again, will the government today commit to matching the $500-per-student fund dollar for dollar?”
Neither Wynne or Matthews indicated the government would match the hardship fund.
Oshawa MPP Jennifer French says while she is relieved students are back in class, the process leading up to it was “frustrating”, stating the provincial government dropped the ball in their handling of the strike.
“They should have been more involved,” French says. “To let it drag on with all the uncertainty and hardship, it’s wrong.”
To French, it is time for the province to review the college system.
“We are celebrating 50 years for some of our colleges and we’ve realized they are not sustainable.”
She defended the NDP’s delaying of the back-to-work legislation, as, in her view, the Liberals expected opposition parties to blindly support it.
The issues between faculty and the colleges are far from over, French adds.
“It needs to be prevented from happening again and the only way is to actually focus on the college system.”