Teachers federation says conciliation process fails as contract negotiations continue

Province, though, says progress was made during four days of talks

Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Patrick Maze speaks in Prince Albert on Nov. 1, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Negotiations between the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation (STF) and the province have stalled again after four days of conciliation.

The STF issued a press release Friday announcing that the conciliation process had failed. After four days, they said, there was no progress on the issues of student need, the loss of spending power experienced by teachers or the role of substitute teachers.

The province, though, had a different take on the process.

In an emailed statement attributed to Education Minister Gordon Wyant, he said progress had been made during the four days of meetings.

“The Government Trustee Bargaining Committee (GTBC) met with the Teachers’ Bargaining Committee in Saskatoon for four days from January 21 to 24 and felt that progress was being made towards solutions on a number of items,” Wyant said.

“The GTBC awaits the report from the conciliation panel and continues to look forward to future negotiations with the Teachers’ Bargaining Committee.”

The government didn’t respond to specific questions posed by the Herald.

STF president Patrick Maze said Friday the next step is to meet with the provincial executive and with local teachers’ associations.

“We actually booked (meetings with local associations) prior to conciliation in the hopes of announcing a tentative deal,” he said.

“Unfortunately, instead we will be using those meetings to announce that conciliation has broken down and to describe to them some of the process and discuss with them some potential next steps.”

That process will take place over the next few weeks.

In a press release, the STF said it was a “sad day” for students and teachers.

“We were hopeful that we would be able to come together to find solutions; sadly, that was not the case,” Maze said in the press release.

While speaking to the Herald, he stressed the importance of the concerns surrounding class size and composition.

“The strain that’s being put on classrooms right across the province, we want to fix that,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the government didn’t seem interested in allowing teachers to take part in fixing the pressures that we’re seeing in our classroom.”

The issue of class size and composition has been a sticking point throughout the process. Maze said the STF has come up with multiple proposed solutions, including a $20 million contribution from the bargaining committee to help school divisions to fix “complexities,” but the province hasn’t been interested.

Earlier on in the negotiations, the province said it would set up a committee to examine the issue, but would not do so within the collective bargaining process.

For the STF, that’s not good enough.

“We want to ensure the government is willing to address them … in a collective agreement that has some teeth to it,” Maze said after speaking at the NDP convention in Prince Albert last November.

“We want to make a difference within our students’ lives and that’s going to require more resources than what they’re bringing to the table. We know that bargaining is the mechanism through which the government is held accountable.”

One reason for the increased focus on class sizes and composition that inclusionary practices are leading to students with more intensive needs, including medical and English as an additional language needs, all being included in the same classrooms without an increase in the number of supports available.

“While inclusionary practices are really important, it has to be resourced properly, it has to be properly supported,” Maze said.

“Otherwise, it’s a recipe for disaster. “

 He added that enrollment has been growing over the last few years, but neither the number of teachers nor that of educational assistants have kept up.

Maze said Friday that class size and composition are what teachers see as their working conditions. The STF, he said, polled teachers before every round of negotiating.

“Our members told us that class size and class composition are critical for them to feel like they’re doing their job and for them to be able to go home at the end of the day and feel like they’ve made a difference, Maze said.

“Fifty per cent of our members said that it was the top priority — even above a salary increase. It’s the first time in our history that …. Something above salary took that level of importance.”

While salary isn’t the main focus of the negotiations, that’s also an issue where the two sides are far apart.

The province had proposed a zero per cent increase in the first year followed by two per cent increases in the years following. The province also proposed a one-time payment of $1,500 in the first year for all full-time teachers

 The STF, though, has requested increases of two per cent, three per cent and three per cent.

Teachers saw zero per cent increases in each of the last two years, Maze said.

Maze said government negotiators are stuck on their mandate of a total wage increase of four per cent.

“There was very little flexibility at the table with that,” he said.

“We’re looking at inflation of just over two per cent. So realistically, teachers have just been asking to keep up with inflation. The two zero percent (increases) over the last two years were losses for both years.”

Maze hopes the province will be willing to return to the table, though he’s not overly optimistic.

“We’ve given it nine months and conciliation and haven’t really moved the yardsticks at all and so I’m not sure how successful that would be,” he said.

“But at the same time, that is still an option to return to the table.”

Maze wouldn’t say what the next steps would look like, as the STF still needs to meet with its provincial executive and local federations, but one way forward could be job action.

Any job action, though, would still be a long way off.

“We would have to take a sanctions vote, which we haven’t done yet,” he said.

“We haven’t had those discussions yet. But it definitely is a possibility.”