N.S. teachers’ union ponders how to restore gains taken by unconstitutional law

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Drop in substitute teachers in N.S. ‘largely’ due to COVID-19
There's been a dramatic drop in the number of substitute teachers in the province, and the outgoing president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union says COVID-19 is largely to blame. Paul Wozney says the pandemic is continuing to put pressure on teachers across the province. Amber Fryday reports – Jun 9, 2022

The union representing Nova Scotia teachers is pondering options to restore the losses its members incurred because of an unconstitutional law that imposed a labour contract on them in 2017.

The law passed by the former Liberal government five years ago was struck down Tuesday by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, with Justice John Keith commenting that Bill 75 violated good-faith collective bargaining “and was terribly wrong.”

Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, says it’s complicated to undo the actions of the Stephen McNeil government.

“The years when the wages and contract language would have applied have already passed … We’re now dealing with a different government, and how do you address those harms?” he said in an interview Wednesday.

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The Supreme Court decision noted that when the bill passed, the union lost key provisions it had negotiated, including two days of professional leave and the creation of a labour-management council that would provide for arbitration if disputes over working conditions couldn’t be resolved.

The imposed contract set wage increases to three per cent over four years. It also wound down a long-term service award, which had allowed teachers to accrue up to one per cent of their salary each year toward a lump-sum payment at the end of their careers.

‘Soul searching’

Wozney said some of the damage caused by the province’s actions, particularly the restrictions on the ability to strike, have been erased by the court decision. However, he said the contractual losses of teachers remain unresolved.

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He says the union’s options include appealing the Supreme Court decision to seek more remedies, or attempting to persuade the Progressive Conservative government to restore the union’s lost gains through negotiations.

“We have some soul searching on what to do about making this right for teachers who suffered from this legislation,” Wozney said.

“You can spend a lot of money on legal processes and come out a loser. We’ve invested a lot of energy in this challenge, and the question is, will there be another pathway without spending a whole lot more money on court processes?”

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When McNeil introduced the bill he expressed confidence it would withstand legal challenge. He called an election for May 30, 2017, and was returned with a majority government, though with fewer seats.

Wozney said labour law reform is needed to discourage similar behaviour from future premiers.

“McNeil benefited politically from this,” he said. “He used teachers as a punching bag to play to a political base. He won the election by the skin of his teeth, and he did so on the backs of a base who believed it was right to be tough on unions.”

The union leader said there’s a need for labour law reform federally and provincially that “constrains” governments from imposing contracts on public sector unions in ways that are likely to be unconstitutional.

Michael Lynk, a law professor at Western University, said it’s unlikely that governments will pass legislation that reduces their ability to impose contracts on public sector unions when talks fail.

However, he said in an interview Tuesday that the Nova Scotia court decision has helped establish the legal precedent that governments can’t impose terms that are inferior to their last offer. The decision, he added, is also now part of a body of law that defines when and how governments can impose contracts on the public sector.

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Lynk said he’s hoping the Supreme Court of Canada will further clarify conditions under which governments can impose contracts on unions.

“What it’s going to be in the future is judge-made law where public sector employers have to allow the bargaining process to go its full route, and, if the government still feels it needs to impose an agreement, (it) can only do so after bargaining in good faith,” he said.

A spokesman for the Nova Scotia Department of Finance and Treasury Board said in an email that the province “will work on the remedy outlined in the ruling around court costs.”

“There is a negotiated four-year collective agreement currently in place that we will honour. It does not expire until July 31, 2023,” wrote Gary Andrea.

“We believe in the collective bargaining process and remain committed to open, honest, and meaningful collective bargaining when negotiating with public sector unions.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2022.

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