HALIFAX — A contentious government bill aimed at ending the 16-month long contract dispute with Nova Scotia's 9,300 public school teachers was winding its way through final reading Tuesday, during a marathon session of the provincial legislature.
Introduced last Tuesday, Bill 75 was poised to be passed by the Liberal majority after a series of around-the-clock sittings, usually accompanied by the sounds of unionized teachers and their supporters as they protested outside Province House.
Speaking with reporters, Premier Stephen McNeil said the law was needed to return classrooms to normal by ending the teachers' work-to-rule job action, which began Dec. 5.
"We were hoping to get an agreement at the bargaining table, as I've said so many times," said McNeil. "There is no question it (work-to-rule) has had an impact on students ... we had to move so this contract would be in place and work-to-rule would end."
Teachers held a one-day strike Friday in protest of legislation they say doesn't provide the help they need in the classroom. It was the first time in the union's 122-year history that members had walked off the job.
The new law would also impose a four-year contract that contains a three per cent salary increase and incorporates many elements included in the first two tentative agreements rejected by union members.
Nova Scotia Teachers' Union president Liette Doucet said the inevitability of the bill's passage has made teachers "extremely upset" with a government that doesn't want to listen to them.
"However, they believe through this action that they have had their voices heard and their voices have been heard right across the province," Doucet said. "They hope that the citizens of this province realize that we have a broken system and that something needs to be done and pressure needs to remain on the government to make those changes."
The Liberal government adopted a minor amendment, later passed by the legislature, that will bring in an arbitrator to settle disputes between members of a council being created to come up with recommendations to improve working conditions in the classroom.
Part of the last deal rejected by union members, the provision would have allowed the arbitrator to rule on issues worth up to $250,000 a year. Liberal house leader Michel Samson said the government was doubling the amount to $500,000, and that any member of the 14-member council would now be allowed to trigger the arbitration process.
McNeil has said that after the legislation is passed, the government will focus on the committee for classroom improvement, which will get $20 million over two years. The union has said the council's composition of four government representatives, one union co-chair and nine classroom teachers selected by school board superintendents doesn't give the union enough say.
Doucet said that once the bill becomes law, the union would look at appointing members to the committee.
But she also said teachers would not be forced by the union to do extra activities like coaching outside school hours that aren't covered by the contract.
"Those are the things that teachers actually love doing with their students," Doucet said. "If teachers make decisions not to do those things — those will be very hard decisions for our teachers."
NDP Leader Gary Burrill said his party supported the "minor improvement" in what he described as an otherwise terrible bill. But he said the only thing that can end the mistrust between the sides is "with the new broom that we'll have in an election."
Under questioning in the legislature, McNeil revealed the government saved about $3.4 million in the one-day strike. He said the money would be used for student grants across the province.
Opposition Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie asked McNeil whether the province was setting aside funds for a court challenge the union has vowed to launch.
"By his reckless actions the premier has committed the taxpayers of Nova Scotia to years of legal challenges and millions of dollars in legal costs," Baillie said.
He pointed out that prior challenges in British Columbia and Ontario had resulted in successful lawsuits.
However, McNeil expressed confidence the bill would withstand a legal challenge by the union.
"We had three different agreements with two different executives of the teachers' union," he said. "Each and every time we went to the table ... we changed the agreement providing more support.
"I think even the lawyer representing the teachers' union said this piece of legislation will stand the test."