It’s round two of job action in the ongoing dispute between the province’s teachers and the provincial government. A province wide walkout on Monday sent teachers back into the cold streets as they work toward seeing a settlement in their contract.
Warmer temperatures from last week’s Tuesday march on Humboldt streets buoyed spirits, but this was by no means a celebration. Teachers say it's an earnest effort to educate the public on issues in the education system, particularly around classroom size and complexity.
It was an all too familiar setting for Nadine Jennison, vice-president of the Horizon Teachers’ Association and principal at Drake School. The refrains were similar to last week but amplified in the face of the government's response to the first walkout, she noted.
“It’s been very disappointing,” Jennison clarified. “There has been very little response except for the narrative they (the government) are trying to put out there. They’re trying to paint a narrative that teachers are greedy and it’s all about the money. For us, it’s not about the money; it’s about the students. We want good learning conditions for our students.”
Jennison lamented the province’s fall from the number one funder of public education in the country to number eight. She says that’s had a real impact in all schools, including her pre-K to Grade 8 school in Drake.
“In my school, we have 0.1 LRT (learning resource teacher) time with two intensive needs students. That means that our LRT has half an hour per day to devote to all of the special needs we have in our building. The complexity and class size issues in rural schools is much different than in the city – for cities, it’s the class size; for us, it’s the class complexity.”
To this point, the government has insisted that issues like class size and complexity range in need and scope across the province, and it has insisted that those issues are critical to look at, but they won’t be a function of collective bargaining. Reached by phone during the second day’s strike, Humboldt-Watrous MLA and Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said that the government did not disagree with the teachers’ concerns, and that’s why the government put into place it’s targeted funding and programs.
“That’s why we added after the budget, we added an additional $53 million to address it in three different ways,” Harpauer stated. “One of them is an envelope that can be activated by teacher initiatives on what they think can be done to address class size and complexity.”
Harpauer said the government respects the teachers’ concerns, but it’s refusing to take the avenue the teachers are prepared to take for a resolution. Part of the issue, she states, is that additional supports are provided by hiring a range of professionals represented by organizations other than the STF.
“Normally, the collective bargaining table is for wages, pensions and benefits, and it’s very difficult to have a collective bargaining agreement with one union when the staffing in school includes a multitude of unions. One of the ways to address class size and complexity, and the challenges teachers are facing is to hire more individuals in other professions. Therefore, we cannot have one union that is dictating the staffing complement of other professions that are in other unions.”
Robert Lissinna, principal at Kelvington School and STF councillor, has long been engaged in bargaining processes at the local and provincial level. Lissinna asserts that discussions on the issues hampering student learning have a place in collective bargaining.
“It’s definitely something that needs to come to the collective table. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, unresponsive funding, and reductions in funding over the years, we’ve seen things erode in the classroom. It’s not necessarily the fault of local school boards, but the reality is dollars don’t go the distance they used to, and the lack of funding being provided by the government is forcing us to stand up and say this is not right. That collective agreement will allow us, as members, to stand up for our students. It will hold the government accountable within that agreement.”
In its communication in recent days, the government has been focusing on the salary package teachers are asking for, with Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill being openly critical of the wage demand. A debate has emerged over the value of the salary proposal set out by the teacher bargaining team and the interpretation of those numbers by the government. Minister Harpauer weighed in on the discrepancy.
The STF has asked for a 2 percent increase per year plus an additional raise reflecting the current Consumer Price Index for four years. Harpauer says the discrepancy between the numbers involves the values the two sides are using to determine the ask.
“There is already some dispute over year one, which has already taken place as to whether the value is 2 percent plus 6.4 or 6.6, a 0.2 percent discrepancy on whether you use provincial or national figures stats.”
Harpauer dismissed the variation as “not that relevant” outlining the total ask as “over a 20 percent lift” during the term of the contract.
“That is something that should be bargained at the collective table, and not elsewhere, but it is a substantial ask,” she concluded.
Harpauer said she is working on the next budget and that there would be consideration in the budget around class size and composition issues.
Throughout the process, the STF and its’ members have maintained that the salary ask is due in part to eroded purchasing power and past increases that simply haven’t kept pace.
An STF statement notes, “The STF’s salary proposal is aimed at addressing the loss of purchasing power that teachers have experienced over the last two provincial agreements. Since 2017, teachers have lost 8.5% of purchasing power because salary increases have not kept pace with inflation.”
Throughout the preceding weeks into the strike, teachers’ messaging has remained singularly focused on the need for funding in schools to meet the current reality in terms of student population and diversity. During the second strike day, STF resident Samantha Becotte reaffirmed the teachers’ commitment to see those concerns bargained collectively and keep the focus on the classroom.
“We clearly have the government’s attention. My question is, are they going to actually listen to what parents and teachers are telling them?” said Becotte. “The Minister wants to make this all about teacher salaries and continues to misrepresent our proposals. We have made our opening proposal package public. We have been very clear that we are ready and willing to negotiate – and that must include class size and complexity. This is about so much more than a single issue. This about ensuring our kids have access to the resources and supports they desperately need, for many years to come.”
Both sides claim willingness to come to the table, but neither seems prepared to back down from their stand on what belongs there.