HALIFAX â€” Nova Scotia’s 9,300 public school teachers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to reject a tentative agreement â€” the third deal endorsed by their union executive since contract talks began in September 2015.
With 100 per cent of the union’s membership taking part in an electronic vote, 78.5 per cent turned down the deal, setting the stage for a possible showdown with Premier Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government.
Liette Doucet, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said a work-to-rule campaign would resume, and she openly mused about the possibility that the government would impose a settlement through legislation.
“Itâ€™s clear our members are frustrated, they deserve better and what government offered in this agreement doesn’t go far enough in addressing the real classroom concerns that affect teachers and students,” Doucet said in a statement. “We don’t know if (the government) will agree to go back to the negotiating table, if they will legislate a contract, change the terms and conditions of employment or lock us out.”
Education Minister Karen Casey said the outcome of the vote was disappointing for students, parents and the government, but she did not indicate how the government would respond.
“This was the third tentative agreement reached with the union leadership and it was reached after an intense and productive period of bargaining,” she said in a statement. “This agreement provided a fair wage offer and showed we were willing to make further investments in classrooms.”
Casey said the agreement included $20 million to improve classroom conditions â€” a key issue in the dispute.
The teachers most recent contract expired July 31, 2015 and negotiations started on Sept. 29, 2015. The teachers have been in a legal strike position since Dec. 5, after voting 96 per cent in favour of strike action.
As the labour dispute drags on, Nova Scotia’s majority Liberal government finds itself in a difficult position. Well into the fourth year of its mandate, McNeil is widely expected to call an election later this year.
Now that another tentative deal has come and gone, it will take time for the union to regroup. And if the government decides to impose a settlement, it can expect to face prolonged court challenges.
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the collapse of the latest tentative deal demonstrates that McNeil isn’t listening to the teachers.
“This Liberal government is willing to sacrifice the education of a generation and burn out the most qualified group of teachers in the history of the province to protect their balanced budget,” he said in a statement.
Both sides had embarrassing moments during sometimes bitter negotiations over working conditions, money and other issues.
In early December, the government closed schools on two days’ notice as it called an emergency session of the legislature to impose a settlement on the teachers as they began their work-to-rule campaign. But the government faced internal dissent and quickly reversed itself, saying the union addressed its safety concerns amid a disagreement over exactly what had been discussed.
The temperature went up again last month, when Casey raised questions over teachers’ professional development travel to Hawaii during the work-to-rule campaign.
The union argued its members had been granted permission to travel to conferences, and it pointed out that school boards had said the teachers could be reimbursed.
When the latest tentative contract was reached Jan. 20, the teachers to suspend their work-to-rule campaign. The job action was not popular among many parents and students, given the fact that field trips, Christmas concerts and sporting events had to be cancelled.
As well, five universities said they would sue the union over the campaign, saying it had violated the Education Act by refusing to supervise student teachers.
The union’s work-to-rule edict stipulates teachers should only report for work 20 minutes before class starts and leave 20 minutes after the school day ends.
Some teachers have come forward to say their main concern is the lack of funding and support for special needs students.
McNeil has said he’s committed to making changes to classroom conditions. But he has also said the province must contain public sector salary costs.
The premier also confirmed one of the key provisions in the most recent agreement was the creation of a commission on classroom inclusion, which would review the resources provided for special needs students.
However, that issue was sidetracked Jan. 27, when the union said it had lost confidence in McNeil after he said two extra days off mentioned in the latest deal were to provide additional time for teachers to prepare and mark tests in the classroom.
The union said it understood the tentative agreement allowed teachers to decide how to use them, describing them as paid days off in a memo to its members.
The text of the proposed contract referred to the days as “leave with pay … for self-directed preparation/development of the teacher.”
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press