Attempt to avert potential N.S. teachers strike falls apart over 'preconditions'

Appointment of a conciliation board would have pushed back a strike that now could happen as early as Dec. 3

HALIFAX – An attempt to avert a potential teachers strike in Nova Scotia hit a dead end after the government and union couldn’t agree on terms for conciliation by the Tuesday deadline.

The conciliation request came from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union last week as a means of kick-starting negotiations ahead of an early December strike deadline, but the Liberal government asked for clarification on what would be brought to the negotiating table.

A subsequent exchange of letters resulted in the union saying no to four conditions laid out by Education Minister Karen Casey. As part of those conditions, Casey told the union the government would discuss salary, but only if the sides could identify corresponding savings to offset any salary increases.

“We will not accept any preconditions to a conciliation board because we believe in free and full collective bargaining,” union president Liette Doucet said in a statement.

“We believe that government is pushing teachers into a position where they do not want to be — on strike. The position government has taken affirms to us they do not want to bargain in good faith.”

The appointment of a conciliation board would have delayed job action while the board was at work, pushing back a strike that now could happen as early as Dec. 3.

Union members voted 96 per cent in favour of strike action last week after voting on Oct. 4 to reject the province’s latest contract offer — the second time this year they turned down a tentative agreement.

In her letter to the union, Casey said the government remains committed to a working-conditions committee and will meet with teachers Nov. 10.

“We believe that it should continue whether or not you ultimately agree to a conciliation board as proposed here,” Casey wrote.

Premier Stephen McNeil said the blame for the impasse squarely rested with the union and he said it wasn’t the result of pre-conditions set by his government.

“We have said we would go to the table and they chose not to go,” said McNeil. “They set conditions as well so the issue is there were things that they did not want to talk about.”

McNeil said the government would continue to talk with teachers to address supports for the classroom, but didn’t say whether anything else could be done to avert a strike over the contract.

“We have a financial package on the table and it’s not unique to teachers, it’s across the entire public sector,” he said. “We believe we have a deal when it comes to the financial side and we’ve acknowledged the complexities of the classroom and that we are prepared to continue to work with them on that process.”

The rejected deal contained a two-year wage freeze, followed by a one per cent increase in the third year, a 1.5 per cent increase in the fourth year and a 0.5 per cent increase at the end of the fourth year.

In an interview, Doucet said the union would continue to explore avenues to avoid job action including mediation, arbitration and a return to the table, although the government would also have to agree to one of the proposed options.

Doucet said the union also hadn’t decided on whether to strike.

“We haven’t made any decisions on that and we haven’t made any decisions on what job action would look like,” she said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie accused the government of “playing games” with a conciliation process that is non-binding. He said the move would disappoint parents who want to see a government willing to work things out.

“To have them refuse to even talk to the teachers in front of an independent board will just give them (parents) even more evidence that the Liberals are not serious about avoiding a strike,” said Baillie.

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