Photo: It may be another week before back to work legislation can be passed and York University students get back to class. (Peter J. Thompson/National Post)
By Allison Hanes and Sarah Millar
Update: Sarah Millar is reporting on Monday’s debate at Queen’s Park via Twitter. Get her live updates here.
It could be another week before York University students resume classes after the Ontario New Democratic Party refused on Sunday to help fast-track back-to-work legislation introduced at Queen’s Park to end an 80-day strike by teaching assistants and contract professors.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty convened an emergency session of the provincial legislature in order to salvage the school year for 50,000 students, after a mediator’s last-ditch attempt to resolve the labour dispute around the bargaining table ended in what he called a “deadlock.”
Arriving at Queen’s Park on Sunday, Infrastructure and Energy Minister George Smitherman called the bill “back-to-learning” legislation.
But the session quickly adjourned until today when the NDP caucus withheld its consent to waive first reading of the labour bill. The opposition party’s agreement would have expedited the law’s passage — which requires three readings before it receives royal assent — as happened last April when the Ontario legislature voted unanimously during an extraordinary Sunday session to terminate a day-old strike by Toronto Transit Commission workers.
NDP leader Howard Hampton on Sunday vowed “full debate” on the bill.
The move could push its final passage to the end of the week.
“We’re going to point out that these workers do 54% of the teaching at York University, get only 7.5% of the budget. We believe in full and principled debate,” Mr. Hampton said. “We’re not going to be part of what we think has been a manipulative process from the beginning.”
Progressive Conservative leader John Tory chided Mr. McGuinty for waiting so long to intervene in the strike that has suspended classes for 11 weeks. But he also lamented the NDP’s decision to slow down the return to class at the 11th hour.
“Mr. Hampton is advocating a point of principle that we all understand is something the NDP believes in. I respect that but I think he could have done that today,” he said. “He could have said all he wanted to say in several hours of debate today, he could have voted against the bill — which I’m sure he will do — and then we could have had people back to work tomorrow. I hope he does that tomorrow.”
The Conservative caucus will do everything it can to speed passage of the law, Mr. Tory promised, including limiting all speeches to the one-hour allotted for opening remarks during the debate.
He said neither Mr. McGuinty nor Mr. Hampton have put the interests of students first.
“I’ve been told by the students and by their parents every day counts now,” Mr. Tory said. “These kids have a lot of work to do to catch up. They have summer jobs they want to get, they have permanent jobs they want to take and I just think we are putting their interests behind those of others if we don’t act right away to get this school open, York University open post haste and I think that means Tuesday. It should have been Monday.”
Ontario Labour Minister Peter Fonseca called the NDP’s stalling tactics “unfortunate.” He called on the party to help move the process forward now that they’ve made their point.
“The NDP first off, can stop this right now, and allow students to get back into the classroom tomorrow,” he said. “We’re focused on getting the teachers into the lecture halls, into the labs, and getting the students in their seats learning. We’ll move as quickly as we possibly can and we would hope that the NDP would come on board and do the same.”
Alex Bilyk, a spokesman for York, said what day classes will resume depends on what day the back-to-work bill gets royal assent, since the university is obligated to give students 24-hours notice.
“So if it passes on Monday, they’d be in class on Wednesday,” Mr. Bilyk said. “If it passes on Tuesday they’d be in class Thursday. Wednesday on Friday. And if on Thursday it would have to be on Feb. 2, which is on a Monday.”
York undergraduate students have been out of class since Nov. 6 when the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903 voted to walk off the job. Negotiations broke down in late November and talks did not resume until January.
The 80-day strike has eclipsed the 2000 CUPE strike, when the same union was out for 72-days. In that strike, classes were not cancelled for students officially, though some professors didn’t teach courses.
To avoid any confusion this time around, the university’s senate decided to suspend class for all students.
Hamid Osman, president of the York Federation of Students, said on Sunday another week’s delay getting back to class is frustrating, but he placed blame for the entire fiasco at the feet of the Ontario government.
“It annoys me that it’s been so long,” he said. “My frustrations go from the McGuinty government not investing in post-secondary education, it goes to York University, with three strikes in 10 years. Our frustrations are all around. Students want to be back in the classroom learning and graduating. Everyday counts. It’s counted since Nov. 6.”
Mr. Osman called for York to give students a 12% refund on their tuition given their terms will be truncated by about three weeks. Both Mr. Hampton and Mr. Tory said some kind of assistance for students is warranted.
Mr. McGuinty mentioned extra loans could be made available.
But Mr. Bilyk, the York spokesman, said a rebate is out of the question since the university is going to “deliver” on the school year, albeit belatedly.
As soon as classes resume, the fall term will be completed followed by a brief exam period. Then winter classes will start in a condensed term that will end by the start of June.
Catherine Divaris, co-organizer of YorkNotHostage, which currently has more than 5,000 members, said jubilantly she and others in the group are “absolutely elated,” by the latest development.
“I think we all knew York and the union would not be able to agree on sticky issues,” she said in an interview on Sunday. “It is very late in the game, but at least McGuinty did call the legislature and introduce the bill.”
She added the delay due to the NDP slowing passage of the bill was disappointing but predictable.
“We figured the NDP would do this,” she said. “It’s kind of ironic that the NDP claims to support students and they’re not doing anything to get us back into the classroom after an 11-week long break.”
York University student Kriss Bacon, founder of the Facebook group 50,000 Against York U, called the Ontario government’s bill “too little, too late.”
“I’m already losing 12% of my instruction time and 33% of my yearly income opportunities,” he said.
Earlier last week, members of CUPE 3903, voted 63% against accepting a settlement offer from York.
The ratification vote, supervised by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, was forced on the 3,340 union members after the union leaders refused to put the offer to a vote.
Afterward, the province announced it was sending in a top mediator. But on Saturday, mediator Reg Pearson told the Premier there was “no reasonable prospect of a negotiated settlement.”
The university said the rejected deal, which includes a wage and benefits increase of 10.7% over the duration, represented a reasonable offer. But CUPE said it’s not about wages.
“These are people who have been teaching at York for 15, sometimes 20 years. They have to reapply for every single course they teach,”said Tyler Shipley, a spokesman for the union, as more than 100 CUPE members protested outside.