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Looming fall election puts pressure on province to end dispute with teachers, professor says

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The end of the school year and a looming fall election are putting additional pressure on the province to strike a deal with Saskatchewan teachers, according to two political scientists.

The stalemate between the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation (STF) and the provincial government has dragged on since December, when the province dug in its heels and rejected the advice of a third-party conciliator who ruled that class size and complexity should be up for discussion at the bargaining table.

After months of job action and teachers’ overwhelming rejection of the province’s ‘final’ contract offer this month, pressure is mounting.

University of Saskatchewan (U of S) political science professor Daniel Westlake says the fall election could play a large part in resolving negotiations.

"Once you start to get four or five months out from an election, that's the period in which stuff really starts to map for that upcoming election, and we're starting to get into that period," he said.

"I don't really think the Government of Saskatchewan and the Sask. Party has an easy way to resolve this, but I certainly think the pressure to resolve that is going to start to ramp up over the next month or so."

Westlake said both sides are in "tricky spots," roughly one year after bargaining began, with little to no progress on the key issue — class size and complexity. Westlake said those concerns can be expensive to solve, especially for a government committed to balancing its budget.

He said a crucial issue facing many governments in Canada is a lack of revenue coupled with pressure from the public to increase funding in a variety of areas, which means the province may have to raise taxes if it gives in to teachers' demands.

"I would like to see political parties, really across the country, but especially in Saskatchewan, be a bit more honest about those trade-offs," he said.

"We want to see investments in social services, and we don't want to run massive deficits, then we're going to have to see changes and changes in taxes and increase in taxes."

However, fellow U of S associate professor Charles Smith, whose research interests include labour and unions, says the province has yet to give a fulsome answer why it refuses to negotiate class size and complexity, though he also suspects cost is a major factor.

"Budgets are about choices, let's not forget that," he said.

Smith says the STF has a lot of leverage in the negotiations after the rejection vote resulted in such a resounding response. That leverage is also important as the end of the school year approaches.

"There's a bit of a ticking clock here, because as we all know the school year ends at the end of June," he said. "There's no guarantee that this labor dispute will be wrapped up by then."

Teachers in the province voted 95 per cent in favour of job action in October 2023, which gave the STF Executive Teachers' Bargaining Committee the authority to impose sanctions until June 30, 2024. Results of another sanctions vote will be shared with STF members and the public after voting closes on Thursday.

Smith says teachers could fully strike, bring back work to rule or a combination of those two before the end of the school year. The STF could also hold a silent picket line over the summer and restart negotiations in the fall, which would further intensify pressure with the provincial election scheduled for Oct. 28, 2024.

Smith feels both sides could be in "for a longer fight" given Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill's reaction to the vote results last week.

"There was no olive branch to be found," he said.

Saskatchewan NDP leader Carla Beck wasted no time framing the teachers’ dispute as an election issue following the results of the vote on Thursday night.

"If you want a government that values education — publicly funded education — that will work with teachers, with all of those in our schools, with school boards, with parents, but most importantly, will work in the interests of all students in this province, you're going to have to change government," Beck said.

Westlake said he doubts the NDP will form government in the fall, though it could make gains in the short term.

"If they were, they'd end up in the same situation where they have to find revenue to address these kinds of problems," Westlake said.

Cockrill said he and STF president Samantha Becotte have had "productive discussions" last Thursday and he would prefer to have a deal done sooner rather than later.=

"I know there was a relatively productive conversation this morning and we hope for more of those this week," Cockrill said.

With education accounting for the second largest budget item and 90 per cent of voting teachers refusing their contract, Smith said that could put the province on defence.

"Fighting an election, not on their terms, but on the terms raised by this dispute," Smith said.

"So I think they have a problem and I'm sure they're aware of that. It'll be interesting to see how they navigate it going into the fall." 

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