College students will start returning to class on Tuesday thanks to back-to-work legislation — passed by Queen’s Park at a weekend sitting — that ended the longest strike by college faculty in Ontario’s history. The government has put more flesh on the bones of the promise it made last week to compensate students, announcing on Monday that students will be eligible for up to $500 to compensate for unexpected costs and that those who decide simply to end their college try will get a full tuition refund.
As the dust settled, Queen’s Park was seized on Monday by what’s obviously the most important issue to settle in the aftermath of this strike: who’s to blame.
The Liberals were positively purple with rage at the New Democrats, whom they blamed for unnecessarily extending the work stoppage and, they said, hurting students. According to the governing party, had it not been for NDP foot-dragging, students would have been back in class on Monday morning.
It's true that the NDP — who are opposed to both back-to-work laws and letting the government take legislative shortcuts — delayed the passage of Bill 178, the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Labour Dispute Resolution Act. Instead of passing it with no debate on Thursday evening, the NDP forced short debates on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Team Orange certainly didn’t make any new friends in the government benches by forcing them to work the weekend.
What’s less clear is whether any students are actually being harmed by the NDP’s slow-walk. When faculty were voting on the final offer from their employers last week, the colleges told the media that students wouldn’t be back in class before November 21 even if faculty voted yes on the offer. (TVO.org published that detail and so did the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen, the CBC, and the London Free Press, among others.) Bill 178 was introduced only after faculty voted no on the college’s final offer, so it’s not clear that students would have been in class sooner even if the NDP had allowed for its speedier passage.
Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews, asked to clarify the government’s assertion on Monday, repeated it.
“If we’d passed the legislation on Thursday, professors, instructors would have been able to work out their plans and get back to work on Friday,” Matthews said. “The NDP had multiple opportunities where they did not grant unanimous consent to pass the legislation.”
Matthews’s office later contacted TVO.org to reiterate that according to their own consultations with colleges, the passage of Bill 178 on Thursday night would have meant that classes could have resumed on Monday. But they could not explain the discrepancy between the government's statement this week and the colleges’ position from last week.
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It’s worth recalling here that Bill 178 was announced late on Thursday: the government attempted to introduce it after 5 p.m. and was greeted by shouts of “No” from NDP house leader Gilles Bisson. Whether colleges could, in 18 hours or so, have wrangled all their staff and faculty (who were, after all, being forced back to work against their will) into returning to work is questionable. Legislators aren’t wizards: passing a bill at Queen’s Park and declaring a strike over doesn’t magically put people back in their workplaces.
It is true that the New Democrats didn’t initially indicate how long, exactly, they planned to prolong the debate on Bill 178. That’s understandable politics, but it has real-world effects: if colleges had known on Thursday that the NDP was going to allow the bill to pass on Sunday night, they might have been able to get students back on Monday. But there are a lot of ifs and mights there, too.
If the NDP didn’t, in fact, change the outcome, it’s also just as fair for its critics to ask what the point was, beyond irritating other members of the legislature. The NDP allowed speedy passage of back-to-work legislation in 2008, when Toronto was (briefly) paralyzed by a transit strike.
The broader context matters here, though. Even if the Liberals are correct, the difference is the loss of one day of instructional time: the government had, after all, already allowed the strike to consume 25 instructional days as of Friday. So voters are being asked to judge who bears the political responsibility for, at most, 4 per cent of the total work stoppage. (Of course, that one day could still be important: for students with Monday classes, it could, in effect, mean another lost week. But it’s precious precisely because of the lost time that came before it.)
Make no mistake, it’s voters the Liberals are concerned about — voters, and whose heads they’ll demand if they’re still angry about this strike when they head to the ballot box next June. Matthews made it pretty explicit in Question Period on Monday, saying, “I’m not sure [students] will ever forgive the NDP” for its actions this weekend.
While the collapse of the Progressive Conservative vote in the face of “100,000 job cuts” is the most memorable story from the 2014 election, it’s worth remembering that the Liberals also needed to pick up Toronto-area seats from the NDP to secure their narrow majority. The Liberals successfully picked off vulnerable NDP seats in Davenport, Trinity-Spadina, and Beaches-East York, and very nearly claimed Parkdale-High Park. If recent polls are right, those seats will be harder for the Liberals to defend in 2018 than they were to win in 2014.
In other words, an argument over whether the NDP stalled the progress of back-to-work legislation is actually about a governing party that’s trying to make sure its opposition wears at least some of the blame for the way the strike ended, in the hopes that progressive voters in the GTA who were turned off by the NDP last time around might remember that feeling on voting day.
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