Sask. minister says he’ll ensure class time ahead of teachers’ vote

Bryn Levy/Saskatoon StarPhoenix. Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill speaks in Saskatoon on May 2, 2024.

Bryn Levy, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Saskatchewan’s education minister has hinted at the possibility of finding alternate means to ensure students can attend classes should the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation escalate its job action.

With some 13,500 STF members set to vote next week on a contract offer announced in mid-April, Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill on Thursday said he remains hopeful a vote in favour of the offer will “provide predictability” for students and families.

“At the end of the day, we think we’ve got a fair agreement on the table here for a vote,” Cockrill said.

Cockrill spoke about the ongoing labour negotiations while attending an event in Saskatoon highlighting previously-announced provincial budget funding for Ability in Me (AIM), a non-profit that delivers specialized programming and therapy for people with Down Syndrome.

Cockrill on Thursday said it is his job to ensure students receive required instructional time, and suggested the province would step in if this was threatened.

“We certainly would hope that further job action would not result in us having to have a conversation with school divisions about how to ensure that the requirements for those hours are met,” he said.

Teachers are scheduled to vote May 8-9 on the proposed deal. The three-year contract offer announced April 17 includes salary increases of three per cent in the first two years, and two per cent in the third year, with retroactive pay to September 2023.

The STF instituted a work-to-rule campaign prior to the last round of bargaining. Those sanctions have been paused since the contract offer was announced.

STF president Samantha Becotte this week said members remain disappointed that a tentative agreement couldn’t be reached with the government-trustee bargaining committee (GTBC), a reality that has led to plans for a “final offer vote.”

She said attempts to negotiate with the province at the most recent bargaining session fell on deaf ears, and at the end of two days of talks in mid-April, the GTBC presented what was framed as the government’s final offer.

“We made the decision as a bargaining team, along with our provincial executive, to take it to a vote,” Becotte said in an interview. “We have always valued the voice of teachers.”

If STF members reject the province’s offer, Becotte said bargaining would continue and the current contract would remain in place until an agreement is made. When asked, Becotte wouldn’t say whether further job action — which could include a full strike — would take place.

While Becotte has previously stated the STF’s elected leadership won’t instruct members how to vote, she has criticized the negotiations leading up to the offer.

Cockrill on Thursday repeated his characterization of the offer as “a tentative agreement” that the STF bargaining committee was willing to put to members for a vote. Becotte has previously rejected that characterization, saying “a tentative agreement would imply that there were good faith negotiations that happened.”

Asked about the government’s plans, including the possibility of bringing in an outside arbitrator, should STF membership reject the province’s offer, Cockrill said he believes the best deal will come from bargaining between the two sides.

Much of the public back-and-forth between STF leadership and the government has centred on classroom size and complexity.

While the province has promised additional support, teachers — leery of the potential for the province to renege on its commitments — have sought to have their contract include language that would bind the province to maintain funding, something both Cockrill and representatives of Saskatchewan’s school boards have consistently rejected.

The offer on the table makes reference to an “accountability framework” discussed between the two sides, but does not compel the province to abide by it.