HALIFAX (CP) — Nova Scotia's Liberal government tabled legislation Tuesday that would impose a new four-year contract for the province's 9,300 teachers and result in an end to their union's legal strike position.
The contract was included as part of the Teachers Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvement Act, which once passed, would end the 16-month long contract dispute.
The bill was introduced as a large group of teachers protested the move in the chilly night air outside the legislature.
Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters it was simply time for the government to act after the union membership rejected three tentative agreements recommended by the union's executive.
“I was hoping that the most recent one (contract) would have been accepted,” said McNeil. “Work-to-rule is having an impact on schools across this province and this is to try to put some normalcy back in the classrooms.”
The new contract contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates much of the elements contained in the first two tentative agreements rejected by members of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. A third tentative deal was rejected last week by a vote of 78.5 per cent, prompting the government to push ahead with a legislated settlement.
The salary package includes zero per cent for the first two years, followed by increases of one per cent in the third year and 1.5 per cent in the fourth, with a 0.5 per cent increase on the last day of the agreement.
McNeil said it was the same wage pattern teacher's rejected in the first deal, although by a smaller margin than in subsequent votes, and that's why it was adopted by the government. He said the government wasn't attempting to punish teachers for voting no to the latest deal.
“Not at all. We had to have a contract and the one that the majority of them voted for was the first one, it's as simple as it gets,” McNeil said.
The government said the province would save $18 million in contract costs over the most recently rejected deal.
Outside the legislature, teachers were quick to express their disappointment with an imposed settlement they say tramples their right to collective bargaining and doesn't address conditions in the classroom.
“I leave here tonight with nothing that is going to help me in the classroom,” said Terry Williams, a Grade 6 teacher at a school in suburban Halifax.
Williams, who also coaches softball and soccer, said he would now have to consider whether it was worth his time to continue volunteering outside of classroom duties.
“As much as I love it, as much as I want to do it for the kids, do I want to go above and beyond after this process of just feeling neglected and not appreciated,” he said.
The bill establishes a council to improve classroom conditions and a commitment of $20 million over two years to address that issue.
There will also be a three-person commission on inclusive education that will be launched 30 days after the bill is passed. The commission is expected to submit an interim report by June 30, which will leave enough time for recommendations to be implemented for the upcoming school year.
Union president Liette Doucet said her membership would be angered by the imposition of a deal that actually loses the minor gains contained in the most recently rejected deal. Two paid leave days were also among provisions that didn't make it into the new contract.
“They were already upset about the fact that they were not getting a cost of living increase and so now that has been made worse,” Doucet said.
Under the bill, teachers would be prevented from withdrawing some services while at school, a move related to such things as staff meetings and professional development. Participation in voluntary aspects such as coaching sports teams would be left to an individual teacher's discretion.
There is also a commitment to examine class sizes at the junior and senior high levels and to look at the creation of a program to help teachers access their long-service awards prior to retirement, although the retirement bonuses would remain frozen.
Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said his party would not support a government bill he described as “odious.”
“Adding more committees and more bureaucracy — the time is past for that. That's why teachers don't trust them and parents don't trust them to actually make change.”
NDP Leader Gary Burrill panned the legislation calling it the “Slap in the Face Act.”
“What there ought to have been from the beginning was competent negotiations,” he said.
It's expected it will take a week or more to pass the bill into law.
The union is demanding its members be allowed to speak when the opportunity comes to propose amendments.
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