Striking faculty and the council representing Ontario's 24 colleges resumed bargaining talks Thursday as pressure mounts to end the labour dispute that's left half a million students out of class for more than two weeks.
Negotiations between the Ontario Public Sector Employees union, which represents the 12,000 striking college workers, and the College Employer Council, which represents the province's colleges, restarted as union-led protesters rallied at the legislature demanding a resolution in matter.
The talks were the first held since the strike began Oct. 15.
OPSEU's president said Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews had placed pressure on all sides to restart talks.
"It seems like people are so far apart but still, personally, I believe there's a deal there," Warren "Smokey" Thomas said in an interview. "Our side has been working hard to come up with some alternatives to show them some flexibility. We want to see that from the other side. That's where the mediator comes in."
Thomas said he believes Matthews has also heeded the union's demand that the province invest more money in frontline workers at Ontario's colleges and that, in part, has helped draw all parties back to the table.
"The minister has said they will fund the colleges up," he said. "I said to the minister, 'alright, but I want you to put some strings on that money because we've lobbied before and got money in sectors and then have to fight a terrible fight with the employer to get the money that supposed to go to workers.' She took that under advisement. When she tells you that, it means she heard you."
A spokeswoman for Matthews did not say if the province had offered to invest more money in the college system.
"The minister has met with both sides," Tanya Blazina said in a statement. "Her message was the same: the solution to this dispute will be found at the bargaining table."
Earlier Thursday, Matthews said she's hopeful the parties can reach agreement.
"The fact that they're back at the table is a good sign," she said.
OPSEU has called for the number of full-time faculty to match the number of faculty members on contract, but the colleges have said that would add more than $250 million in costs each year.
Don Sinclair, CEO of the College Employer Council, has said the colleges were ready and able to return to the bargaining table at any time. The colleges had put forward a four-year-agreement that offers a 7.75 per cent pay increase. The council had encouraged the union to put that offer to their membership for a vote.
Meanwhile, at the OPSEU-led rally at Queen's Park Thursday, striking faculty waving placards asked the government to meet their demands and end the labour dispute.
Ian Summers, a full-time faculty member at Algonquin College in Ottawa, said anger has been brewing across the system for years.
"It had to happen," he said of the strike. "It should have happened several years ago. From my perspective ... the last five or six years have been hell. We've been treated badly, we've been disrespected and we've been over-ridden (by management)."
Nour Alideeb, Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students, said students are starting to feel the impact of the strike and frustration is increasing.
"It's been a huge problem. A lot of students are feeling the squeeze. They're paying tuition fees and not necessarily getting the education they're supposed to be getting," she said. "Elections are coming up and students will not forget this. We will go to the polls and make sure our voices are heard."