Striking Ontario college teachers held a rally outside the Ministry of Advanced Education building downtown this morning, urging the province to send the College Employer Council back to the bargaining table.

Thousands of faculty members at 24 of the province’s colleges have been off the job since Oct. 16 after contract talks broke off between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents striking faculty, and the College Employer Council.

In a news release sent out this week, the union said they want Ontario’s education minister Deb Matthews to intervene by sending colleges back to the table with “clear direction to bargain a fair collective agreement.”

“What we are doing today is to try and get the ministry to pressure the council to start actually negotiating. We haven’t met with an employer who has stonewalled this hard ever. We have not been able to engage in discussions with them on any of the key faculty issues,” OPSEU bargaining team chair JP Hornick told CP24 at the rally Wednesday.

OPSEU says about 70 per cent of college faculty is on contract and the union is calling for a 50/50 ratio.

Other key items the union says it is fighting for include increased job security and more say in academic decision-making.

“We are looking at a non-cost level just at the extension of contracts so that there is an academic year that is guaranteed to these workers so they have stability but also so their students have stability,” Hornick said.

“What we are looking for is to create balance in the system so that students have a guaranteed stable complement of full-time faculty who can do the program mapping, the curriculum development.”

College Employer Council Chair Sonia Del Missier has previously said that the union’s demands, which she said was would cost the system an additional $250 million annually, are simply too expensive.

Hundreds of people turned out for the rally this morning.

“We are looking for being there for the students and for job security for our contract faculty so that they can actually be there for the students,” one teacher told CP24 on Wednesday morning.

“They are travelling from campus to campus, from college to college, downtown, uptown, Scarborough, you name it, and they don’t have time to answer questions for students, to be there for students.”

Semester could be at risk for some students: union

There are currently no talks in the works between the union and the College Employer Council.

“We really need council to come back to the table so that students aren’t in danger of losing their semester or their year. We want to be working with them in the classroom,” Hornick said.

She added that the longest strike in the Ontario college system was 20 days and the shortest was 14.

“At 20 days, you’re really looking at the potential for students to lose their semester,” she said.

“Even right now, we have BSC and nursing programs, the paramedic programs, we have trades programs, we’ve got apprenticeship programs where those students are at a sincere disadvantage. It is going to be hard for our faculty to make up this work and ensure those students are ready to take the accreditation exams and things like that.”

Students meet with education minister:

Students Greg Kung and Amir Allana met with the education minister at Queen’s Park this morning to highlight the impact the strike is having on students.

“Students are worried. Students are frustrated that this process has gone on much too long and they want answers. They want some leadership being shown by not just the government but all parties to ensure that students are top of mind,” Kung said.

Kung said students are concerned about clinical placements and apprenticeships, which have been put on hold during the strike.

“One of the things we worry about a lot is the missed content in class. A lot of the external agencies that are ultimately going to test us, both employers as well as provincial certification agencies are not going to really say, ‘Oh, there is a strike so we are going to put that certification on hold,” Allana said.

Earlier this month, the pair launched a petition calling for the province to reimburse students for some of the lost tuition.

“Students are being financially affected by this. Students are the collateral damage to what we are now calling a flawed bargaining process perhaps,” Allana said.

“500,000 students are out not only tuition money but extra rent perhaps. They are not working because they don’t really know when they will be back at school. Those are real financial impacts and the refund is the way to send that message loud and clear.”

Ontario PC Leader Patrick Brown told reporters Wednesday that he believes students have a right to ask for a tuition refund.

"If they lose their semester, it’s fair game for them to ask for that," Brown said. 

He said the government's "hands-off approach" to the situation is not working, however, he did not say back-to-work legislation should be imminent.

"A starting point should be telling both sides, ‘I expect you back at the table immediately.'"

Students are 'unfortunate victims of this impasse,' minister says

Speaking at Queen's Park on Wednesday afternoon, Matthews said she is "very worried" about the strike's impact on students.

"There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of unanswered questions and it is very disappointing that the two parties have not yet found their way back to the table," Matthews said.

"I’m urging everybody to think of the students. Why the parties aren’t bargaining is beyond me." 

She said colleges are working to ensure that students will not lose course credits as a result of the strike.

"Every college is working to have a contingency plan so when they do come back, no students will lose their semester," Matthews added.

"Having said that, right now we can’t predict how long this can go on. We do have the tool of legislating back but that would be a very last resort tool."