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Thursday, 26 May 2011 09:25

Teachers strike after talks break down

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By Chris Jaster — This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The teachers’ strikes Wednesday and Thursday may just be the beginning of their job actions.

Saskatchewan’s teachers and the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee failed to come to a tentative collective agreement last week just a couple days after the two sides agreed to return to the bargaining table. That sparked the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation to issue a 48-hour strike May 25 and 26 where the schools were shut down and all extra-curricular activities were cancelled.

Southwest Saskatchewan teachers spent their days off writing and delivering letters to their MLA’s offices or Brad Wall’s MLA office that describe their personal experiences as a teacher. They also volunteered in their own communities by planting trees, painting community facilities and cleaning up parks.

Classes were scheduled to resume May 27.

“It was important that we sent a message to the Government-Trustee Committee and more broadly than that to the government that teachers are very committed to providing professional services and this is just one way (to do it),” said Gwen Dueck, the spokesperson for the Teachers’ Bargaining Committee.

The teachers have been without a contract since Aug. 31, 2010. The two sides began bargaining in May 2010, but failed to reach an agreement leading them to conciliation. That process ended March 13, leading to teachers voting in favour of participating in sanctions April 13.

The first sanctions were implemented May 5 when teachers across the province shut down the schools to participate in a one-day study session.

They returned to the bargaining table hoping to see the government change its position from offering a 5.5 per cent wage increase over three years.  The teachers had been asking for 12 per cent over one year prior to that but came to the table asking for 16.3 per cent over three years after their study session. They were looking for repositioning salaries by five per cent, three per cent and 2.8 per cent in their contracts while adding a 1.5 per cent increase, followed by two per cent increases over the next two years to maintain purchasing power. Dueck and the teachers felt this offer would bring Saskatchewan teachers’ salaries between Alberta’s and Manitoba’s and was fair.

The Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee stuck to its guns by offering 5.5 per cent over three years, but it planned to decrease the compensation tiers from a 15-year salary ladder to an 11-year plan.

“The Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee spent considerable time between the last two times we were bargaining looking at opportunities where there was flexibility,” said Sandi Urban-Hall, the spokesperson for the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee.

“We came back with an extra $9 million at the table, about a one per cent increase to our offer, and we wanted to explore some of those possibilities that we saw. We wanted to discuss changing the compensation tiers. That would mean a beginning teacher receiving a lift and a senior teacher reaching the highest compensation level four years earlier.”

The teachers were not impressed with that offer and asked the government to go to arbitration. They were turned down as the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee is trying to reach an agreement at the bargaining table. Urban-Hall said her committee will remain at the table and there is a standing invitation for the teachers to return to the table any time. It does not appear that will happen unless the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation feels the government is willing to make more concessions, which could lead to more sanctions from the teachers.

“The government has a choice here,” said Dueck. “They can agree to one of those two options and that will ultimately lead to a tentative agreement and that is really what will stop any withdrawal of services from happening in the future.”

Urban-Hall understands more sanctions and job action may be coming from the teachers, she just hopes the teachers won’t put the opportunity for the students to finish their school years at risk.
The Ministry of Education and school divisions are working on contingency plans.

“Our first priority is student safety and well-being and I would tell parents to check the school division website and watch for messages coming home with their kids for those plans to make sure your students are safe and looked after are in place,” said Urban-Hall.

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