11/14/2017 10:15 EST | Updated 11/14/2017 17:01 EST

Striking college faculty begin two-day vote on latest offer

TORONTO — Faculty at Ontario's colleges who have been on strike for about a month began voting Tuesday on a contract offer, as a potential class action lawsuit was launched on behalf of students.

Some 12,000 Ontario college professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians haven't been at work since Oct. 15, leaving hundreds of thousands of students out of class.

The College Employer Council asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a vote on the offer it has put on the table, accusing the Ontario Public Service Employees Union of misrepresenting it.

The union has recommended its members reject the offer.

In the meantime, the provincial government has ordered the colleges to create a fund — using savings from the strike — to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the strike. Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews estimated Ontario's 24 colleges have saved about $5 million so far.

Matthews said she is "very, very concerned" about the students who are caught in the middle of a dispute that has "gone on way too long."

"I am extremely disappointed that the two sides have failed to reach an agreement," she said Tuesday. "I am extremely disappointed and students are paying the price. That's just not OK. That's not fair."

Matthews said the process of the vote must unfold, and back-to-work legislation is not yet on the table.

"We can't just introduce back-to-work legislation because we want the strike to end," she said. "You have to meet a certain threshold and we're not there."

Law firm Charney Lawyers filed a proposed class action against the 24 colleges Tuesday, saying 14 students have come forward to potentially stand as representative plaintiffs.

The notice of action alleges the colleges breached contracts with students by failing to provide vocational training and a full term of classes. It seeks full refunds for students who choose not to continue with their programs and refunds "equivalent to the value of the lost instruction" for students who do want to continue.

The colleges have 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.

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, which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.

Voting is taking place starting Tuesday and closing at 10 a.m. on Thursday.