The Nova Scotia Teachers Union launched legal action Wednesday against the province and Bill 75, the law the majority Liberal government pushed through the House in February to impose a contract on the province’s public school teachers.
“The current government took numerous steps to erode NSTU’s ability to engage in a fair collective bargaining process, which culminated with Bill 75,” union president Liette Doucet said in a release Wednesday.
The union submitted an application to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia arguing that the Teachers’ Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvements Act violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The union contends that by passing the bill and imposing a contract through legislation, Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal government violated NSTU members’ guaranteed charter rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression.
“The government actions were both reckless and inappropriate and prevented teachers from negotiating a fair contract that included needed reforms to improve classroom conditions,” said Doucet, whose union represents 9,300 classroom teachers, specialists, administrators, speech language pathologists, school counsellors and school psychologists.
“Never before have Nova Scotia teachers been treated so unfairly by a government. Therefore, we had to take a stand by initiating the first provincewide strike in our history.”
That one-day strike took place on Feb. 17, three days after the Liberal government introduced the bill that would eventually impose a contract on teachers.
The teachers had been without a contract since July 31, 2015. In the interim, three tentative agreements were hammered out at the bargaining table. On Dec. 1, 2015, 61 per cent of the teachers who voted decided to reject a tentative agreement reached nearly three weeks earlier.
Another tentative agreement was reached Sept. 2, 2016, but 94 per cent of the voting NSTU members turned it down about a month later. The union followed up with a decisive 96 per cent vote in favour of strike action on Oct. 25.
The union announced that it intended to launch a work-to-rule protocol on Dec. 5, a protocol the union described as directing teachers to focus exclusively on teaching students in a “safe learning environment, preparing and implementing lesson plans, and maintaining appropriate contact with parents of students who are at risk or have special needs.”
The government circumvented the launch of the work-to-rule directive by announcing that all public schools in the province would be closed on Dec. 5 because the NSTU initiative could not ensure the safety of students. At the same time, the government announced that it would introduce a bill on Dec. 5 to legislate a contract and get the students back to school.
The government put the bill on hold and declared the schools would be safe for the return of students on Dec. 6. The teachers maintained the work-to-rule protocol.
Negotiations with the help of a provincially appointed conciliator resulted in a third tentative agreement being reached on Jan. 18. But a ratification vote on Feb. 9 had 78.5 per cent of the voting members reject the third deal. All three tentative deals were recommended by the union executive.
A return by the union to the work-to-rule protocol, which had been temporarily lifted, ensued and the government responded with its legislation. The legislative assembly sat day and night for the better part of a week while protesters gathered by the hundreds near Province House.
Doucet promised on Feb. 21, the day the bill went to third reading, that the union would proceed with legal action.
A provincial election will be held in two weeks and campaigning candidates of all stripes have said that the imposed contract and the government’s claim that the teachers’ contract requests were too rich for a province trying to hold finances in line have been popular topics on the hustings.