N.S. Premier expects tough, ‘but fair’ talks with teachers following strike vote

Click to play video: 'N.S. Premier responds to teachers voting in favour of strike mandate'
N.S. Premier responds to teachers voting in favour of strike mandate
After an overwhelming majority of Nova Scotia Teachers Union members voted in favour of a strike mandate on Thursday, the province's premier said he expects a tough "but fair" bargaining process to begin next week. As Zack Power explains, teacher retention, violence in schools, and a lack of resources remain key issues amongst educators. – Apr 12, 2024

After 98 per cent of Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) members voted in favour of a strike mandate on Thursday, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said his government plans to be “sincere” when returning to the negotiation table next week.

“I believe the collective bargaining process will be tough, but fair,” Houston said following an announcement in Pictou County on Friday.

“We’re sincere in supporting our students and teachers … it’s about doing what we can to make sure we have a strong education sector, and teachers are front and centre of that.”

Two days of discussions between both parties and a conciliator are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

“For me, it’s about students, outcomes, and putting families first,” he continued.

“We know it can cause a lot of anxiety (for parents) and certainly missed time in the classroom is something that families worry about. We worry about that too. We’re going to put everything we have into negotiating a fair contract that benefits students and is good for Nova Scotians.”

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The union went on strike for the first time in its 125-year history in February 2017, when it held a one-day walkout in the midst of a contract dispute with the former Liberal government.

Click to play video: 'N.S. teachers hold rally ahead of planned strike vote'
N.S. teachers hold rally ahead of planned strike vote

A rise in school violence

Since negotiations began last June, the NSTU has highlighted a lack of headway made on issues involving staff retention, substitute teacher shortages, and the rise of violence in schools.

One parent who works alongside a group advocating for improved public education said the recent stance from teachers “doesn’t come as a surprise.”

Adam Davies, with the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said several longstanding issues — particularly violence in schools — have escalated in recent years. He said a lack of planning around teacher retention and recruitment is also plaguing the system.

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“We really need a long-term plan of how we’re going to replace teachers as they near retirement. It has to be more than just taking in students who have a limited amount of experience. We need the best teachers in the classroom,” he said.

“We have to come up with a plan to retain the teachers that we already have.”

Davies said one of the main concerns shared amongst teachers and parents is the handling of school violence.

“We have a real issue. It kind of disappears into this fog at the school and no one knows what’s been learned about it (afterward) and if policies need to be changed, if the student code of conduct needs to be changed,” he continued.

Click to play video: 'Teen pleads guilty to assault in double stabbing at Nova Scotia high school'
Teen pleads guilty to assault in double stabbing at Nova Scotia high school

“These are crucial issues that are going to take a lot of focus, effort, and time and it doesn’t seem to be a priority.”

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Davies, who also sits on a student advisory council in Cumberland County, said the prioritization of student achievement and wellbeing has all but “disappeared” from public discourse.

“We need politicians talking about these issues and best ways forward,” he said.

He noted that continued exposure to school violence is having an impact on students, teaching staff, and communities across the province.

“Kids are coming home with horrendous things that they’ve seen” he said, adding that students recording instances of violence and sharing it online is resulting in a normalization effect.

“That sense of violence in the school has become really normalized and part of the pattern of the school. It’s unfortunate that we’ve reached that point.”

Davies said he hopes jurisdictions across Nova Scotia can lead the way in creating safer school environments for both students and teachers.

NSTU responds

Ryan Lutes, president of NSTU, described teachers voting overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate on Thursday as a “referendum on the state of public education.”

“For 98 per cent of any group of people to vote the same way is a resounding message,” he said.

“This is your Grade three teacher, high school physics teacher, school counsellor. These people want to do right by kids. They go to work every day to do that and for them to authorize strike action, it should send a very clear message to government.”

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NSTU represents more than 10,000 educators, who have been without a contract since Aug. 1, 2023.

Lutes said increased mental health resources is integral in combatting the issue of school violence.

“Kids are not getting the appropriate support from the system and teachers aren’t being appropriately supported to give that support to kids,” he said, adding that hiring more educational and teacher assistants could make a difference in individually supporting students with complex needs.

Lutes noted that substitute teachers in Nova Scotia are amongst some of the lowest paid throughout the country when first entering into the field.

“If we want to attract folks into the teaching profession, we can’t do that while saying, ‘The first couple years, you’re going to live in poverty,'” he said.

“We need to be able to attract people to this profession and we’re not going to do that unless we have competitive salaries, improved classroom conditions for kids, and (improved) working conditions for teachers.”

A recent poll of members found 84 per cent of them have thought about leaving the profession.

Click to play video: 'Most N.S. teachers have considered quitting over last five years; union'
Most N.S. teachers have considered quitting over last five years; union

In that survey, 42 per cent considered quitting specifically due to school violence and more than half felt they didn’t get enough support or respect from their employer.

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Despite a resounding number of teachers voting in favour of a strike mandate, Lutes said he’s hopeful that such measures can be avoided if the provincial government returns to the bargaining table with a “renewed commitment to public education.”

“If that happens, I believe we can avoid some potential job action. If that doesn’t happen, a message that I’ve heard is that teachers aren’t willing to sit idly by and continue to allow things to degrade,” he said, adding that his side is “certainly willing” to schedule more bargaining dates if talks are moving in a positive direction and more time is needed.

If both sides aren’t able to reach an agreement, he said, current legislation requires the union to wait about 45 days after voting before going on strike.

“No one, including the 10,000 teachers that voted yesterday, wants job action. We want to be in school providing really good education for kids, but we want to make sure the education they’re getting is the best possible education,” he said.

“We certainly hope that government has that same attitude.”

— with files from Global News’ Zack Power

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