REGINA - Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill expressed cautious optimism about the news that Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation had accepted the province’s invitation to go back to the bargaining table.
“I think what we have here, with the announcement that I made yesterday and the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation response — I’m excited, I’m encouraged and I’m optimistic that we may have a path to a negotiated deal here,” Cockrill said in speaking to reporters at the Saskatchewan Legislature on Thursday morning.
The teachers agreed to go back on Wednesday to contract negotiations after the government had provided a new mandate to the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee — something the teachers’ union had been calling for for weeks — as well as a revised offer of pay increases at the same rate as what MLAs currently receive. The issue of MLA pay increases being tied to the consumer price index had also been raised by STF leadership in recent days.
Cockrill was asked about the new proposal being put to the teachers and why they were going back to the table now.
“Well, you know, what I have said over the last several weeks that we were reviewing our mandate and trying to understand where there was potential opportunity for government to make a step forward towards getting a deal done. You know, I’ve said also previously, I hope that both sides in this agreement are considering that and working on that…
“I’ve certainly been working diligently with my colleagues here in terms of getting to what a renewed mandate could look like, so certainly once we had agreement on that within the government, we were able to put that forward to the Teachers’ Federation yesterday.”
Cockrill confirmed to reporters there were “multiple items” in the new mandate, including a new salary mandate as well as some smaller items included that they feel they made progress on. He said he didn’t want to get into too many details, saying he wanted to provide the bargaining committees the best opportunity to have those discussion.
But the renewed mandate does not include classroom complexity. Cockrill reiterated his stance that the government did not believe those issues should be at the bargaining table. However, Cockrill did point to his government’s efforts to address the issue.
“I think as I’ve outlined previously, you have seen us as a government make several moves on classroom complexity over the last several weeks. Obviously with the pilot projects that we’ve announced, we look forward to having more to say about those pilots next week. And you know, government has made previous steps in terms of midyear investment, the previous $20 million to deal with enrollment, $20 million to deal with complexity in this school year, $7 million every year that’s been for the last several years to make sure more EAs can be in Saskatchewan classrooms. I think on that topic you have seen some movement from government, but we have been consistent. We don’t believe those discussions are at the bargaining table, they are with school divisions.”
The union had planned to stage a noon-hour withdrawal of supervision on Thursday which would have seen significant disruption with several school divisions announcing plans to dismiss early. That job action was called off after both sides agreed to return to the bargaining table next Monday.
Cockrill said that the threat of this week’s job action was not the impetus for their renewed mandate. He said they had been looking at their mandate and how it could be adjusted for some time.
“Certainly the noon hour supervision piece, it does provide a significant inconvenience to families, especially when you have both parents working, for example. But certainly we’ve been working on this renewed mandate before this most recent job action was announced.”
As for what it is going to take to get a deal done, Cockrill said it would take “both sides, who want to earnestly work towards getting a deal done that will work for teachers and Saskatchewan families… I am hopeful that both sides can put the last few weeks behind us, and get a deal done that’s going to work for everyone in this province.”
When asked whether mediation or even binding arbitration might be a possibility down the road, Cockrill maintained he wanted to see a negotiated settlement.
“That’s what we’re focused on,” said Cockrill. “We are focused on the two days of negotiation next week and we hope those are productive days… Our desire is to get a negotiated deal done. The bargaining table is where the best deals are going to happen and deals that hopefully are fair for everyone going forward.”