Colleges make latest proposal public before striking workers vote

  Ontario's colleges have launched a website that they say will allow striking faculty members to see for themselves what's in their employers' latest contract offer ahead of a vote this week.

If the offer is accepted, the College Employer Council says 500,000 students affected by the strike -- which is now in its fifth week -- could be back in the classroom as early as next Tuesday.

Talks between the council, which represents the province's 24 colleges, and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the striking workers, broke down last week, with the council asking the Ontario Labour Relations Board to schedule a vote on its offer.

Sonia Del Missier, the chair of the colleges' bargaining team, says everything in the offer has been agreed on by both sides except for language surrounding academic freedom.

The union said last week its main point of contention has been the level of input college instructors have into the way courses are taught and evaluated, but also called the offer a step backwards. A spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

The faculty vote is scheduled to begin Tuesday and end Thursday.

Rejecting the offer would mean prolonging the strike indefinitely, since binding arbitration is not an option, Del Missier 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 colleges said.

Del Missier said the offer also "enshrines academic freedom," but noted there is a disagreement between the colleges and the union as to what that means.

"It is the only outstanding issue," Del Missier said.

"From the union's perspective, they talk about academic control and they've really determined that it's got to be either (faculty) or (management). And from our perspective, it's not an either/or," she said.

"When we look at how the colleges set up programs and how they continue to ensure programs are relevant, you need the input of your key stakeholders," including employers, industry representatives and graduates, she said.

The Ontario government has ordered the colleges to create a fund to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the strike.

Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews has said the government wants to see students return to the classroom as quickly as possible.