In an emergency session Friday afternoon, the Liberal government tabled back-to-work legislation that would end the college faculty strike and could see all 500,000 students back in the classroom by Tuesday.
The strike has lasted five weeks, the longest such job action since the inception of the college system 50 years ago.
The NDP blocked Liberal attempts to pass the bill in one fell swoop Friday, or even to kick off debate, which will now start Saturday. The house is slated to sit from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday for discussion of Bill 178, the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Labour Dispute Resolution Act.
The New Democrats did not grant the unanimous consent needed to bypass the time frame usually required to debate a piece of legislation. Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews called that blocking manoeuvre "despicable," "unconscionable," "cruel to students" and "outrageously disappointing."
How long debate in the house will continue is "up to the NDP," Matthews said. "We could have passed first, second, third reading — everything — [Thursday]. We could have done the same [Friday], and they shut it down. The NDP and only the NDP are blocking the return of students to school."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also expressed sympathy with students, but countered that she had a responsibility to review the legislation before blindly passing it. "No one would sign a contract without looking at it. No one would buy a car from a used-car salesman, as said earlier by someone else, without reviewing what that car looked like," she told reporters Friday afternoon.
Nonetheless, the NDP vowed on Thursday to oppose what Horwath called "anti-worker legislation" at each stage of the process.
The Progressive Conservatives, who supported the legislation, pointed fingers at the other two parties for jeopardizing students' semester.
"Kathleen Wynne could have stepped in earlier to fix this, starting on October 15. Instead she waited weeks before weighing in. This is unacceptable. We are regrettably now at the point of debating back-to-work legislation – which the Ontario PCs will support," PC Leader Patrick Brown said in a statement.
"But I'm really shocked and dismayed by the actions of the New Democrats today. I think that was a really poor choice, and I think it was really wrong-headed," PC MPP Lisa MacLeod told reporters .
The Grits tried to table the expedited back-to-work legislation on Thursday as well, just before 6 p.m. — having given 15 minutes' notice to the opposition — which could have seen classes resume at all 24 public colleges Monday morning.
NDP MPPs blocked that last-minute attempt, which came as the two bargaining teams hit a wall mere hours into the resumption of talks on Thursday.
Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council (CEC), as well as Matthews, said students would be back in lecture halls Tuesday if the legislation passes Sunday. The NDP say they will attempt any legislative maneuver to stall the bill beyond the weekend.
"Once the legislation passes, we'll expect faculty to come back the next day, and students the day after," Sinclair said
The back-to-work legislation, last invoked for colleges in 1984, would refer all outstanding matters, including academic control — a key stumbling block in negotiations — to binding arbitration as faculty resume teaching under the existing collective agreement.
If neither party can agree on an arbitrator, one will be appointed by the government, with an arbitration hearing likely within four to six weeks.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), said faculty took down the picket lines Friday to prepare to head back to work.
“This is one of the most egregious acts of political theatre I’ve seen in a long time,” he said of the last-minute legislative session Friday. “The Liberals themselves and the Tories are using the students and the strike as a political pawn to hammer the NDP over the head, and the NDP trying to be the friends of working people. I just find it disgusting.”
Thomas added that the College Employer Council should be dismantled, saying it “anachronistic” and “anti-union.”
Joel Willett, president of the College Student Alliance, said the prolonged strike has left students disillusioned.
"It's a political game ... At this point, it's very hard for students to determine what party really is pulling for them to be back in class," he said.
"We've been asking for arbitration from Nov. 7, and both the CEC and OPSEU stated that both sides are willing to go to arbitration, but said then said the other wouldn't. So the confusion and the misinformation is only leaving students with more doubt as this continues."
-With files from David Hains