TORONTO — Ontario tabled legislation Friday to end a five-week strike by college faculty, which could mean hundreds of thousands of students can return to class next week.
The Liberal government tried to both introduce and immediately pass the bill Friday, but they needed all parties' unanimous consent to do so and the NDP refused.
The legislation will now be debated through rare sittings on Saturday and Sunday. If it is passed on Sunday, classes could resume Tuesday, the colleges said.
Once classes at Ontario's 24 colleges have resumed, the schools will be likely either extending the semester until Dec. 22 or using the first week back in January to complete the fall term, said Don Sinclair, the CEO of the College Employer Council.
"The commitment from the colleges is to get the academic year in," he said. "I appreciate this is the longest work stoppage we've had in our history, but we will want to recover from it and to ensure that they do get their academic year."
Around 500,000 students have been out of class since the strike by 12,000 professors, instructors, counsellors, and librarians began Oct. 15.
The Liberals first attempted to introduce the legislation Thursday evening after restarted talks between the colleges and the union reached an impasse, but the NDP blocked that attempt, saying they couldn't support legislation that takes away workers' rights. Unanimous consent by all parties was needed to introduce the bill because it was outside the normally scheduled time period for that.
The Liberals also tried Friday to get required unanimous consent to introduce the bill and start debate on the same day, but the NDP denied that as well. Debate will now begin Saturday at 1 p.m.
The New Democrats say they believe the majority Liberal government has the ability to get the bill passed on Sunday.
Premier Kathleen Wynne had asked the colleges and the union to return to the bargaining table Thursday after workers voted to reject a contract offer, but within several hours the two sides reached an impasse when they could not agree to binding arbitration.
The back-to-work legislation would end the strike and send all outstanding issues to binding mediation-arbitration
The colleges have said the offer included a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty, with language surrounding academic freedom remaining as the only major outstanding issue.
But the union said the offer contained "serious concessions" that were not agreed to, which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.
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 labour dispute. Matthews has estimated Ontario's colleges have saved about $5 million so far.
Many students have demanded tuition refunds, but Sinclair said the colleges are focusing right now on the hardship fund.
Law firm Charney Lawyers filed a proposed class action against the 24 colleges Tuesday, alleging the colleges breached contracts with students and seeking refunds.