Nova Scotia Teachers Union will focus on deal after overwhelming strike mandate

HALIFAX — The overwhelming strike mandate that unionized public school teachers in Nova Scotia gave themselves this week is a signal to the provincial government that it needs to get serious at the bargaining table, says the head of their union.

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, told reporters Friday the 98 per cent of members who voted Thursday to support a potential strike shows that teachers have no confidence in the government’s handling of public education.

“Really that’s a referendum on public education and it’s a referendum by the people who know it best, the teachers in our schools,” said Lutes. “Teachers are angry, they’re frustrated and they are burnt out.”

The union president told reporters Friday that while the focus of his 10,000-member union is on getting a deal, the government has to be a willing partner that’s serious about addressing teacher priorities. Lutes said the union needs more engagement from the province on issues such as school violence, teacher retention and more pay for substitute teachers.

Both sides have been in negotiations since last June, and two days of talks with a conciliator are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

“I believe that there’s a path to getting a fair deal, but if the government comes in with the same dismissive attitude then I’m not optimistic that there will be more (conciliation) dates,” Lutes said.

Education Minister Becky Druhan has referred to the strike vote as a “distraction” that has caused “confusion and anxiety for students and their families” ahead of the next round of bargaining.

In an interview Thursday, Druhan said teachers were asked to vote for a strike mandate "without knowing what the outcome of that bargaining is going to be."

However, Lutes said that while union members haven’t been given specifics on the bargaining, they have been kept apprised of general developments and were well aware of what they were voting for.

“They were not confused, they were not distracted, they knew exactly what they were doing,” he said.

If the upcoming talks break down, the conciliator would have to file a report with the minister of labour, followed by a 14-day cooling off period. Lutes said it would likely be sometime in June before the union is in a legal strike position.

The prospect of a strike is concerning to Adam Davies of the online group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, who added that he wasn’t surprised by the decisiveness of the union’s vote.

Davies, a former elected school board member who lives in Pugwash, N.S., and who has a son in Grade 11, said it seems as if things are “coming to a head” in the dispute.

“There are so many issues that have been raised that need to be dealt with,” he said. “What we desperately need is a bigger plan for public education.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2024.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press