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Union members begin voting on colleges' final offer

Union leadership in Thunder Bay believe membership will reject offer from Ontario's colleges.

THUNDER BAY – As faculty members at the province’s colleges will vote on a contract offer that could end the nearly month-long strike, local union leadership is confident the mandated vote and lack of an agreement will strengthen the resolve of members to turn it down.

The 12,000 members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which includes professors, instructors, librarians and counsellors, have been on the picket lines since they walked off the job on Oct. 16.

The College Employer Council, which represents the 24 colleges, appealed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board to force the faculty to vote on its final offer as students are now kept out of the classroom for the fifth week.

Rebecca Ward, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 732 which represents the striking educators at Confederation College, said there is a sense of discontent about how the labour dispute reached a forced vote.

“People are feeling as if this offer does not reflect what was negotiated, what was not in their best interests and are very frustrated with what has happened at the bargaining table,” Ward said.

“They recognize that what’s happening from the colleges’ point of view is not in their best interest at all so feeling very strongly they need to exercise their right to say no.”

Voting on the offer opened on Tuesday – with the faculty members voting either online or by telephone – and is scheduled to continue until Thursday.

Ward said a computer at the union’s strike headquarters has been set up for any members to come in and vote. As of late morning, about 20 people had dropped by to vote.

“Everyone who has come (Tuesday) has been very solid in that perspective,” Ward said. “The idea that this is a forced vote has increased frustration for faculty members. The college moved outside of the bargaining process and this has delayed the strike by two weeks.”

An emerging area of concern for the union are the return to work guidelines included in the offer. Ward said that protocol would result in salaries being reduced by 20 per cent with no overtime provisions for faculty to condense the classes missed over the remaining time left in the semester.

“Essentially, we’re being docked on our pay and then we’re being asked to come back, do overtime and not be compensated,” Ward said. “Again, this is a really clear indicator to faculty members that what’s happening here is not in their best interest. It’s not in students’ best interests.”

Confederation College president Jim Madder said the striking members would not be paid for the time spent on the picket lines but disputed the claim that there would not be compensation for overtime.

“We’re going to do everything we can to stay within the existing workloads. If overtime does come, people will absolutely get paid,” Madder said.

“We’ve had a fair bit of time for our deans, working with our chairs, to walk through multiple scenarios depending on that time. I think they have a pretty good handle on it. Having said that, our faculty are absolutely critical in terms of making it happen so we need to consult with them to make sure everything will occur. We’re looking at the number of weeks we have until the end of the year, when evaluations will occur and when external exams are occurring.”

Eric Weller, who was among the faculty demonstrating outside the Confederation College campus, said contact he has had with students indicates they support the educators.

“They’re aware the deal we’ve been offered isn’t much different than the deal we were offered many weeks ago so they’re basic feeling seems to be ‘you’ve gone this long, don’t settle now,’” Weller said. “They want us to do what’s best for the students and what’s best for the future of education in Ontario.”

Ward said if the members vote to reject the offer, it doesn’t mean the union will stop trying to reach a deal.

“We’re still at the table. We’re still waiting for the colleges to meet us there to bargain a fair and reasonable offer and we will remain there if the vote is in fact no, which we believe it will be,” Ward said.