N.S. court overturns 2017 law that imposed labour contract on school teachers

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HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia judge has ruled that a provincial law that imposed a labour contract on teachers was unconstitutional, five years after it was passed by the former Liberal government.

Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice John Keith says in a decision published Tuesday that the four-year contract imposed in the 2017 law, known as Bill 75, was significantly worse than a tentative agreement members of the teachers union had earlier rejected.

He concluded that "at best" Bill 75 may have been a misguided attempt at fiscal responsibility by the government of former premier Stephen McNeil, but in the end it failed to respect the process of good-faith collective bargaining "and was terribly wrong."

The judge concluded that the law violated the Charter guarantee of freedom of association, which the Supreme Court of Canada has said protects the right to collective bargaining on fundamental workplace issues.

The bill obliged teachers to end their work-to-rule campaign and imposed a wage increase totalling three per cent over four years.

Keith ruled that the law removed gains from the last of three tentative agreements that teachers had voted down, including provisions for two days off for professional development and earlier payment of wage increases.

He also said the legislation significantly decreased representation of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union on a council that was created to recommend classroom improvements, compared to the tentative agreement the union had negotiated.

The decision notes the province defended the changes from the rejected tentative agreement, saying the contract imposed by the government "largely replicated" the negotiated deal.

However, Keith said it was "exceedingly obvious" that the law had unilaterally changed the negotiated gains by the union, and it "failed to respect the fundamental precept of collective bargaining," by not adopting the provisions in the third tentative agreement. He said the province's arguments "obfuscate the facts and are an exercise in sophistry."

Bill 75 was passed amid strong opposition from teachers during a series of round-the-clock sittings, usually accompanied by the sounds of banging drums, whistles and chanting from protesters outside Province House.

Teachers held a one-day strike in protest of the law — the first time in the union's 122-year history that members had walked off the job.

At the time, McNeil justified the law by saying his government had attempted to achieve a deal at the bargaining table, but on three occasions the teachers voted down a tentative agreement. He argued the province couldn't afford larger wage increases in the public sector.

He also expressed confidence that his government's bill would withstand a legal challenge. Opposition leaders at the time criticized McNeil for committing future governments to a lengthy court process and millions of dollars in legal costs.

However, McNeil called an election for May 30 of that year and was returned with a majority government, though with fewer seats.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union referred to Bill 75 in a news release Tuesday as vindictive and "a complicated mess" and said its lawyers will carefully review the decision to determine the union's next steps.

Gary Andrea, a spokesperson for the Finance Department and Treasury Board, said the province will not appeal the decision. "This government is committed to open, honest, and meaningful collective bargaining with public sector unions," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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