N.S. teachers vote 98% in favour of strike action

Ryan Lutes is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC - image credit)
Ryan Lutes is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (CBC - image credit)

Unionized public school teachers in Nova Scotia have voted resoundingly in favour of a strike mandate ahead of talks with the provincial government and a conciliator next week.

In a vote held Thursday, the Nova Scotia Teachers Union said 98 per cent of members, including substitute teachers eligible to vote, voted in favour of the strike action.

NSTU president Ryan Lutes said the mandate from union members sends a strong message to the provincial government ahead of the talks set for Monday and Tuesday of next week.

"Ninety-eight per cent of 10,000 teachers are ready to, if push comes to shove, take job action … because the system as it's set up right now is unsustainable," he said Thursday evening after the results of the vote were made public.

The sides have been in negotiations since last June, but Lutes said there had been no progress on the union's main issues, which include school violence, teacher retention and a lack of substitute teachers.

The union filed for conciliation in February.

Education minister says result comes as no surprise

After the results of the vote were made public, Education Minister Becky Druhan issued a statement calling the vote "only a distraction that has caused confusion and anxiety for students and their families."

"Students and families deserve an uninterrupted school year, fully engaged in learning and all the other positive experiences they have at school. I believe that teachers want to be in classrooms as well," she said, noting the outcome of the vote has no immediate effect on school operations and does not trigger a strike.

Druhan expressed disappointment in the result, but said she was not surprised by the outcome. She said teachers had been put in "the difficult position today of voting while bargaining is ongoing and before they know what is on the table."

Teachers want competitive salary, says union

Earlier Thursday, Lutes said a lack of action on school violence is a particular sticking point with the union, adding that over 50 per cent of members have reported being victimized by violence or the threat of violence at school.

"That's an unacceptable number," he said.

In a union survey completed by 2,534 members last year, 55 per cent said they had been the victim of a violent act or threat at work, while 92 per cent said that they'd witnessed violence "first-hand at school." The issue of school violence is currently being examined by Nova Scotia's auditor general.

Lutes said teacher pay is also a priority, although he wouldn't be specific about what the union is asking for ahead of conciliation.

"I think those specific conversations are best left to the bargaining table, but I think in general, teachers want a competitive salary," he said, adding that his membership also needs to keep up with inflation. "I think it's reasonable, especially in a teacher shortage where we need to attract people to the profession."

According to the federal government's most recent labour market survey, the median hourly wage for a Canadian secondary school teacher is $45.30, while the corresponding hourly wage in Nova Scotia is $41.76.

Druhan said earlier Thursday the government and the union are in agreement when it comes to tackling complex issues such as violence in schools, but she said the solutions will be found through ongoing broader discussions that include teacher and education assistants as well as other professionals across the education system.

"Those complex issues are best served by that collaborative work," said Druhan.

Druhan optimistic about negotiations

The minister also wouldn't tip the government's hand in the conciliation talks, but she said it has been committed to bargaining "fair wages" for all public sector employees.

"I'm optimistic that we can get a negotiated agreement that does reflect our commitment," Druhan said.

If talks between the province and the union fail, and either side requests the conciliator file a report, there is a mandatory 45-day period after the report's delivery before any job action can take place.

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

The government ended that strike through the use of legislation to impose a contract.