Education minister warns teachers, union could face fines in an illegal walkout
Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill speaks during a press conference in Halifax on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. Nova Scotia's education minister says the provincial government's latest standoff with 9,000 unionized teachers has more to do with union membership than addressing challenges in the classroom. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 14, 2018 3:19PM EST
HALIFAX -- The Nova Scotia government's latest standoff with the province's 9,300 unionized public school teachers appears to have more to do with a squabble over union membership than addressing challenges in the classroom, the province's education minister said Wednesday.
Zach Churchill was speaking a day after the Nova Scotia Teachers Union called an unexpected strike vote to protest the government's decision to largely endorse a consultant's report recommending sweeping education reforms.
The vote next Tuesday could lead to an illegal walkout or job action, as the teachers' contract doesn't expire until next year.
Churchill warned that an illegal strike could lead to fines for the union and individual teachers.
He said the main issue driving opposition to the reforms is a proposal to remove 1,000 principals and vice-principals from the teachers union.
As union members, these administrators can face a conflict of interest when supervising staff while also receiving directives from their union, Churchill said.
"We want to give more autonomy to principals ... to govern their schools as they see fit," he said. "To do that, they need independence. There is a conflict of interest that exists with the union membership."
However, union president Liette Doucet said there is no conflict of interest because principals and vice-principals are primarily teachers who maintain collegial relationships with those they supervise.
"They work to support each other and the students," she said, adding that removing the administrators from the union would create a "boss-and-labourer" relationship.
"Instead of fostering a positive learning environment where all teachers in the school are united ... Right now, there is no conflict. This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist."
Still, Doucet admitted some principals and vice-principals were left feeling confused last year when the union launched a work-to-rule campaign to push for a better contract.
"They wanted to support the teachers and they wanted to support the union," she said, adding that some administrators were unsure how to handle their duties when it came to securing buildings and ensuring student safety.
"We didn't clarify those duties," Doucet said.
Only three provinces -- Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia -- have separated these administrators from teachers unions.
"It has created an 'us-and-them' situation, where's it's less collegial," the union leader said, adding that the three provinces have seen an increase in grievances.
The teachers union has already rejected an $800,000 offer from the government to cover lost union dues.
"We're not protecting our turf, we're protecting our members," Doucet said.
If the union's membership votes in favour of strike action on Tuesday, it will be up to the union's provincial executive to determine what to do.
Last February, the Liberals imposed a contract after the teachers union rejected three tentative agreements. The move, which prompted noisy protests at the legislature, ended the work-to-rule job action that had started two months earlier.
"We heard last year from teachers that the system is not working," Churchill said. "We heard from parents and students that the system is not giving them what they need. We need to do a better job ... The status quo is not an option."
Legislation enacting many of consultant Avis Glaze's reform recommendations is expected in a legislature session that begins Feb. 27.
Her report, released last month, makes 22 recommendations including a call for elimination of the province's seven English-language school boards and the creation of a provincial college of educators to license and regulate the teaching profession.