Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty resisted calls on Wednesday to end a long-running strike at York University by ordering teaching assistants and contract faculty back to work.
He instead brought in veteran labour mediator Reg Pearson to “bang a few heads together” after striking workers rejected the school’s latest offer Tuesday night, leaving in limbo the fate of 50,000 students who have been out of class for 11 weeks.
“This thing has gone on for so long, one could be forgiven for coming up with the impression that the two sides have lost sight of the interests of their students,” Mr. McGuinty told reporters. “We’ll give this thing one more shot. We think it’s the fastest way to bring this home, which is to bring in a mediator to bang a few heads together and ideally lead to a speedy resolution.”
In a forced vote that ended Tuesday evening, 63 per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ 3,300 striking members rejected the latest offer. In all, 69 per cent of members cast ballots in a vote requested by the university and conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. The outcome left the McGuinty government facing two choices: appoint a mediator in the hopes of reaching a bargaining breakthrough or order union members back to work.
“I think the fastest way for us to deal with this – and I’ve yet to approach the NDP – is to send in a mediator,” Mr. McGuinty said.
The New Democrats are strong believers in settling labour disputes through collective bargaining. Paul Ferreira, a spokesman for the party, said caucus members have not had an opportunity to discuss back-to-work legislation, a scenario he described as a “purely hypothetical” situation.
“It appears that both sides are being encouraged to get back to the table with a new mediator, and we’re hopeful that this bears some fruit and an agreement is reached,” Mr. Ferreira said in an interview.
Mr. McGuinty said he has asked Mr. Pearson, whom he described as the province’s top mediator, to try to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. But he declined to set a deadline, arguing that doing so would be counterproductive.
“If I say you’ve got a week to get this done, both sides say, ‘fine, we’ll sit on it for a week,’” he said. “Let’s not pretend that that’s not the case.”
Mr. McGuinty also declined to comment on what he plans to do in the event Mr. Pearson fails to end the strike.
“Obviously, we’re going to do everything we can to bring the sides together,” the Premier said.
The government appointed the mediator after York president Mamdouh Shoukri flatly rejected the union’s request that the two sides return to the bargaining table by 1 o’clock this afternoon.
“We are not going back to the bargaining table…York is taking a stand to protect its academic and financial future,” Mr. Shoukri said at a news conference Tuesday evening.
Both Mr. Shoukri and Mr. McGuinty have been criticized for their low profile throughout the strike.
Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman urged the government to introduce back-to-work legislation as early as tomorrow. He said Mr. McGuinty should have intervened much sooner than now.
“I don’t think heads are being banged together,” Mr. Shurman told reporters. “To say he wants a speedy resolution to this dispute at York at the 11-week mark is disingenuous to say the least.”
Students and their parents have also become increasingly frustrated. Several on-line groups have formed, with some urging the province to pass back-to-work legislation. Dagmar Kanzler, a spokesperson for a group of concerned parents, also urged the Premier to recall the legislature and order an end to the strike.