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Sask. teachers inch towards job action as negotiations falter

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The union representing Saskatchewan teachers plans to head back to the bargaining table armed with the findings of a third-party conciliation board — but there may not be much to discuss.

The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation requested a Ministry of Labour conciliator, after declaring an impasse in October, meaning the union felt there was no way forward in its negotiations with the province.

A main sticking point during the union's talks with the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee (GTBC) has been the STF's desire to negotiate on issues such as class size and complexity.

However, the bargaining committee, which represents the provincial government and Saskatchewan's elected school boards, has insisted that negotiations stay focused on salary and benefits.

During a news conference on Monday, STF president Samantha Becotte said the union had just received a report from the conciliation panel that concluded "teachers have a right to negotiate their working conditions."

"As we have been saying, teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions," Becotte said.

"Most recently, teachers in Quebec and Ontario have reached tentative agreements that include articles on class complexity. So this topic isn't new."

However, any hopes of a thaw at the bargaining table may be shortlived.

In a statement sent to CTV News Monday, the GTBC reiterated that it is only willing to discuss matters of compensation with the union.

The committee also disagreed with the union's interpretation of the conciliator's report.

"The GTBC also notes that the conciliation board did not recommend class size and composition be included as a part of the bargaining discussions," the statement said.

In its statement, the committee also pointed to a new pilot project announced Monday by the government.

The $3.6 million program will see a "specialized support classroom" established in eight urban elementary schools, with up to 15 students.

The classrooms will have a minimum of one teacher and two educational assistants and students could be assisted by psychologists and counsellors.

Becotte said the idea is an "interesting solution" while also questioning the government's intentions.

"This is government's way of attempting to yet again sidestep our collective bargaining process instead of coming to the table in good faith, addressing the concerns that teachers have," Becotte said.

"It is a clear admission by government that they agree class complexity is increasing and needs to be addressed ... unfortunately this pilot project is only planned for eight urban elementary schools, which accounts for approximately one per cent of the students in Saskatchewan."

Following the declared impasse last year, the STF held a vote to authorize potential job action, up to and including a strike. Ninety per cent of members took part, with 95 per cent voting in favour.

"We need government to engage in bargaining in good faith and we are trying to provide them every opportunity. We are showing them a path forward that they could take in this process to help us avoid any potential actions," Becotte said.

"But if we do have to take that action, it is solely in the hands of government and the refusal to come to the table in good faith and negotiate with teachers around these big issues."

At the same time, the government bargaining committee accuses the STF of refusing to sit down and talk.

"We continue to call on the STF to return to the bargaining table so that negotiations can continue where we can reach a fair deal with teachers while keeping students in the classroom," the GTBC said.

But Becotte claims it is the government that isn't willing to bargain.

"We can't just go back to the table and continue to hear 'no' and 'no' and 'no,' (to) not have a mandate to actually engage in real negotiations. So we're hopeful that that can happen," Becotte said.

The STF's most recent contract expired in August. It was signed in 2020 after rocky negotiations that saw teachers withdraw from voluntary extracurricular activities.

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