Striking Ontario college teachers will begin voting today on a contract offer that, if accepted, could send about 500,000 students back to the classroom as early as next Tuesday.

About 12,000 college faculty members have been off the job since Oct. 15 after contract talks broke off between the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents striking staff, and the College Employer Council, which represents Ontario’s 24 colleges.

So far, the two sides have not been able to reach a tentative agreement and last week, the council asked the Ontario Labour Relations Board if it could take its latest offer directly to striking faculty for a vote.

Voting began at 9 a.m. this morning via electronic ballot and will end at 10 a.m. on Nov. 16.

The union has urged its members not to vote in favour of the proposal, arguing that the offer contains problematic language around academic freedom and full-time staffing.

Offer is a 'bad deal,' OPSEU says

Speaking to CP24 on Tuesday morning, RM Kennedy, the chair of OPSEU’s college division, said the council has been “completely unwilling” to address the core issues.

“We are striking for really the greater issues to do with the fact that the vast majority faculty teaching in the system are working on… short-term, underpaid contracts,” Kennedy said.

“I would say there is no way of operating a system where almost three quarters of the people who are working in it are doing it on short-term contracts.”

On Monday, the College Employer Council accused the union of spreading misinformation about the proposed contract and launched a website to explain what is contained in the offer.

According to the colleges, the offer includes a 7.75 per cent salary increase over a four-year period and improved benefits, such as extended pregnancy and parental leave.

“What I’m hearing on the front lines is that faculty know that what we are being forced to vote on is a bad deal,” Kennedy said.

“We shouldn’t have had to have this vote at all right now. Council could have put that vote forward to us weeks ago, spared faculty, spared students. But we have a vote and the offer that’s before us is a bad deal and I think we are going to say no to it.”

Kennedy called for more intervention on the part of the government.

“There needs to be more increased pressure by the government on council to get back to the table,” Kennedy said.

The province has not said whether back-to-work legislation will be considered if the offer is rejected by faculty.

“I’m not going to pre-empt a vote that needs to take into account the position of all of the members,” Premier Kathleen Wynne said last week.

“We’re going to let that process unfold. My concern is to get the students back to class."

Students worry about losing semester

Centennial College student Lovey Reid told CP24 last week that the strike has been “very stressful” for students.

“How are we going to manage trying to compress an entire semester within those last four or five weeks,” she asked.

Kennedy said the semester can still be salvaged.

“It’s getting really tight and that’s why we are hoping we are going to reject this deal by Thursday when the vote is over and we are going to be sitting in a room waiting for the employer council to come back,” Kennedy added.

“We think we can get a deal very quickly but it is going to require them to really have a new approach to bargaining. They have to start talking to us about the issues that really matter.”

Meanwhile, colleges are preparing for how to proceed with the semester when students finally do return to the classroom.

In a message to students posted on Conestoga College's website on Monday, administrators confirmed that fall semester classes will be extended until Dec. 22 and will resume on Jan. 2 after the holiday break. The second semester, the school said, will begin on Jan. 15. 

"Classes will resume on the second weekday after the work stoppage ends to give professors one day to review and finalize their course plans and prepare for their first class back," the message read.

The college also said that if the strike continues into next week, reading week may be impacted.

"We advise students to refrain from booking travel during this period until we know more," the school advised.

-With files from The Canadian Press