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Students hope to show colleges and striking faculty they want to get back to their studies

A sit-in will be held Thursday at colleges across Ontario
20171016 Conestoga College Picket Line KA
OPSEU Local 237 workers seen on the picket line in front of the Guelph campus of Conestoga College in this file photo. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday

Students taking part in a sit-in demonstration at Ontario’s public colleges are not taking sides with either management or the striking faculty, says an organizer of the event.

The intention of Thursday’s student sit-in movement, which has been named ‘Ass to Class’, is to show management and striking faculty that the 500,000 students affected by the labour action are still here and ready to learn, said co-organizer Jessica Towress.

“We were trying to figure out a way to get the word out to students that our voices do matter in this situation, that’s when we came up with the idea of getting everyone back to class to show the colleges, union and everybody else that we do pay for our education and we are worth investing in and that we want to take a stand about it,” said Towress.

A contract vote is set to begin Tuesday, as striking faculty, counsellors and librarians haven't been at work since the labour action began Oct. 15.

The colleges said the offer includes a 7.75 per cent salary increase over four years, improved benefits — including extended pregnancy and parental leave, and a $500 increase in coverage for paramedical services — and measures to address concerns regarding part-time faculty.

The Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU) says the dispute is the longest in the college's history.

"I'm telling you, if the strike doesn't end this week, the semester is under threat — serious threat," said Kevin MacKay, a member of the OPSEU faculty bargaining team.

Towress and the other two co-organizers, Kaitlyn Mullin and Terry Foster, are first-year Journalism students at Conestoga College’s Doon Campus in Kitchener.

The trio have so far organized students to participate in the sit in at most of the public colleges currently affected by the strike and at press time .

“We want to get back in class — that’s the goal. We are trying to put pressure on both sides to get back to the table and to figure it out because as students we just want to be back in class. We want to learn,” she said.

Towress said she worked for a year to be able to pay for her college education.

“I could have used the money that I saved up to do something else but I wanted to go to college. I feel like I uprooted my life to go to college and better myself and having this happen doesn’t seem fair to me and every other student out there,” she said.

Advanced Education Minister Deb Matthews has said the government wants to see students return to the classroom as quickly as possible.

The Ontario government has ordered the colleges to create a fund to help students who may be experiencing financial hardship because of the strike.

Conestoga College's Doon Campus is among the colleges where an Ass to Class demonstration is to be held. Towress could not say at press time if there is to be a demonstration Thursday at the Guelph campus of Conestoga College.

Towress noted that teachers have the right to strike and said she understands there is a process to negotiate new contracts, but she is concerned students are not being heard.

“With college, we pay to be there because it’s what we want to do for our future. We want them to realize our futures are at stake with this, too,” said Towress.

“I think if all the schools get together on the same day at the same time and show that we are unified it will create a bigger impact,” said Towress.

— with files from The Canadian Press