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

·4 min read

HALIFAX — 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 asked in an interview Wednesday.

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.

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.

He says the union's options include appealing the court decision to seek more remedies, or attempting to persuade the current 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?"

Premier Tim Houston said Thursday that he believes the court decision means the parties should "discuss what remedies there should be." His government is "open to some of the things that are important to the union membership," he added.

Asked if the specific losses of the union would be reconsidered, he responded, "I would encourage both sides to go to the table with the things they want to talk about, and all of those things would and should be included in the discussions moving forward."

Wozney said one other option is for the NSTU to work with other unions as they consider their next steps in a constitutional challenge of Bill 148, a separate bill the McNeil government passed that imposed a wage package on tens of thousands of public sector workers.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, along with the Federation of Labour said Thursday in an email they are considering "appropriate next steps with the legal challenge to Bill 148."

Finance Minister Allan MacMaster, whose department is responsible for labour talks, said neither of the two bills have an impact on current negotiations. "Our government wants to be different than the last government. We don't want to be seen as antagonistic. We want to be fair and reasonable," he said.

However, 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."

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. He 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.

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

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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