Ontario's striking college faculty voted Thursday to reject a contract offer and continue their nearly five-week job action.
The 12,000 college professors, instructors, counsellors and librarians have been off the job since Oct. 15, leaving some 500,000 students out of class.
Talks between the colleges and the union broke down on Nov. 4, prompting the colleges to request the final offer vote. After 86 per cent of faculty rejected it, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she would meet with college and union representatives Thursday afternoon "to discuss how we can resolve this situation immediately and get students back to class where they belong."
"Students have been in the middle of this strike for too long and it's not fair," she wrote in a statement. "We are looking at all of our options, but I am hopeful that an agreement to return students to class immediately can be reached by the parties."
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents the workers, had recommended the colleges' contract proposal be rejected.
The colleges have said the offer includes a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty, with language surrounding academic freedom remaining as the only major outstanding issue.
But the union said the offer contained "serious concessions" that were not agreed to, which would erode faculty rights and contribute to an unsustainable staffing model.
"This is exactly what we expected," union bargaining team head JP Hornick said. "This was an unnecessary vote. It could have been taken back in September ... and instead they chose to drag (the strike) on for an extra two weeks."
The union called on the colleges to return to the bargaining table Thursday afternoon.
OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas said the forced vote was a "bully move" by the colleges.
"Our team is ready to bargain today," Thomas said. "It was close a week ago Sunday night, it's still close. But they need to come back."
The head of the colleges' bargaining team said it will be looking to the provincially appointed mediator for direction now.
"This is a terrible result for the 500,000 students who remain out of class," Sonia Del Missier said in a statement. "I completely sympathize with our students who have been caught in this strike for more than four weeks."
Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews said the government is looking at a "range of options" to get students back into the classroom. She also had sharp words for both the colleges and the union and how they've allowed the strike to drag on.
"I would say that both parties share the failure, and it is a failure," she said. "Make no mistake about it. Both parties need to recognize that there approach to this date has not resulted in any kind of success. They have to focus on students."
Matthews also said that the semester can be salvaged.
"We are approaching the time where we will start to see people with lost semesters but we are not there yet," she said. "We need to get them back immediately so that the semester can be saved."
The provincial government has ordered the colleges to create a fund – using savings from the strike – to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the labour dispute. Advanced Education Matthews has estimated Ontario's 24 colleges have saved about $5 million so far.
Law firm Charney Lawyers filed a proposed class action against the 24 colleges Tuesday, saying 14 students have come forward to potentially stand as representative plaintiffs.
The notice of action alleges the colleges breached contracts with students by failing to provide vocational training and a full term of classes. It seeks full refunds for students who choose not to continue with their programs and refunds "equivalent to the value of the lost instruction" for students who do want to continue.