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Differing accounts offered on why talks with teachers broke down

Government, STF each accusing the other side of walking away from negotiations to try and end the teachers’ job action.
Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill speaks to reports Feb. 14

REGINA - The two sides in the ongoing labour dispute involving the province’s teachers are offering conflicting accounts as to why the latest round of negotiations fell apart.

In a news release Tuesday, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation announced that rotating strikes and the withdrawal of noon hour supervision would be back on on Friday. In their release they had accused the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee of employing stalling tactics and of having walked away from the bargaining table.

The two sides had set aside Monday and Tuesday for talks. The union claimed that instead of beginning on Monday morning, the GTBC delayed until Monday afternoon and then pushed Tuesday’s start time to 5:30 p.m., before cancelling altogether.

In speaking to reporters at the legislature Wednesday, Education Minister Jeremy Cockrill put forward a different version of events about what happened at the STF bargaining office in Saskatoon.

“We had a meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday, that was the agreed-upon time," said Cockrill. "We showed up at 1 p.m. and began to share our movement that we made on several items, and by 1:30 p.m. we were the only ones left in the room.”

When pressed about the claim from the union that the start time was 9 a.m. and that the GTBC didn’t show up until 1 p.m., Cockrill said “that’s not true.”

The indication from Cockrill was that union leadership was not willing to discuss any items other than the one of classroom complexity, an issue the province has insisted they do not want included in a collective bargaining agreement. Cockrill said they were not even interested in the province’s latest salary offer.

“Union leaders refused to talk about salary or any of the other items that they brought forward. There were 10 items, classroom size and complexity is one of the 10 items that they identified when the bargaining process started many months ago… we have moved from our initial offer, shown that we are wanting to get a deal done, a fair deal done, and the union leadership wouldn’t even discuss those items yesterday and walked out of the room.”

Cockrill also made it known the GTBC was willing to negotiate on Tuesday, though under questioning he also confirmed they weren’t in the same room as the Teachers’ Bargaining Committee that day.

“We made ourselves available Tuesday, we said we would be available Tuesday. Again, the union leadership expressed that they weren’t willing to discuss anything else, any of the renewed mandate that we had brought forward.”

Cockrill also confirmed that the province had offered to STF on Tuesday a separate contract that would fall outside of collective bargaining. Under that proposed draft agreement, the $53.1 million in funding for classroom complexity was “going to be in the budget for years going forward,” said Cockrill.

Cockrill reiterated the government’s commitment to addressing the classroom size and complexity issue, pointing to the announcement that day that the province was committing  $32 million in funding for 45 new relocatable classrooms to increase classroom space throughout the province.

“What you’re seeing from government is trying to find a way through this, trying to find solutions. Unfortunately, we have a team on the opposite side of the bargaining table, the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation leadership, that hasn’t moved on any of their initial demands, including their 23.4 per cent salary increase, and is unwilling to come up with solutions on how to get through this.”

Cockrill further said he is directing the GTBC to be prepared to return to the bargaining table at any time, saying they are willing to get a deal done.

“I’m giving instruction to the Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee today, that we are prepared to bargain every single day, starting at 9 AM every single day we would have a room ready to go. Our team would be ready to get a deal done. And hopefully union leadership decides they also want to get a deal done."

Becotte responds

STF President Samantha Becotte spoke to reporters in a conference call soon after Cockrill’s remarks, and took issue with the minister’s account of what took place in negotiations this week. She accused the government of “continuing to disrespect” teachers and “gaslight them.”

“We put aside two full days, and expected to negotiate throughout the day and into the evening if necessary. Before we even got to the table, the start time was delayed until 1 p.m. by the GTBC. At 1 p.m. we started the conversation on Monday with some of the proposals that were brought by the GTBC, as well as class complexity, but we put aside any conversations on salary and benefits until another time. 

“At that point, we had asked the GTBC to call the Minister and get further direction on what we had proposed because it was clear they had not been provided with the authority to actually engage in negotiations at that time. So it is a common part of the process where after a few items have been presented, the two teams often separate and work individually to discuss the proposalsthat have been brought forward and that’s what happened around 2 o’clock on Monday. 

“After they’ve been given a little bit of time, and we were ready to come back together, the GTBC said they needed more time, which alluded to the fact that they were working on it. If it was a no at that time, that they were not willing to discuss classroom complexity, they simply could have communicated that to us, but they attempted to delay the process further until Wednesday morning. This creates a significant challenge for the Teachers Bargaining Committee, because we have teachers who sit on that committee… it creates a significant disruption. It’s not as easy as just saying ‘hey, I need to have an extra hotel night.’

“… We were able to come to an agreement that we would resume conversations at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. So it would provide the GTBC a full day to continue preparing, even though they should’ve come to the table prepared to begin with. Unfortunately, shortly after 3 PM, we received communication from the GTBC that they would not be returning, so because we had openly discussed a few items we did not get to salary and benefits, because they didn’t come back to the table to have those discussions.”

Becotte also took issue with the proposed memorandum of understanding being proposed by the government on Tuesday outside of collective bargaining.

“Shortly after the communication from the GTBC we received a communication from the Ministry of Education, with their proposal around an agreement outside of the bargaining process. This agreement doesn’t include anything new from what we have seen with their pilot projects or one time funding. And the challenge with this is they can cancel the agreement at any time. There’s also, because it’s not in the collective bargaining process, there is no dispute resolution if government were not to hold up their side of the agreement. 

“So essentially, it’s an agreement with no accountability, and that’s what they have been doing all along. They’re saying ‘hey, we’re going to do this, trust us.’ Unfortunately, as history has shown, they walk back on their word, so unfortunately that agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written  on. Essentially the minister, the Minister of Education and the Sask Party government, are trying to make a pinky promise with teachers while they cross their fingers behind their back.”

Becotte also said this would have left out local school boards from this agreement. She also took issue with the billboards used for government messaging on the labour dispute with teachers and called the governments actions “deplorable.”

“… With all of government messaging aimed at misleading the public I’m really not sure how they think teachers will accept anything outside of the collective agreement where they can be held accountable to any commitments that they’re making.”

Opposition reaction 

In her remarks Wednesday at the Legislature, Opposition Leader Carla Beck slammed Minister Cockrill for "walking away from the table." She called for the Minister to "get back to the table and find a path to address the concerns that are being raised, and ensure that our kids have the education they deserve in this province."

Beck also blasted Cockrill for his posts on social media this week, saying he should instead be working to get a deal done.

"You know, we see a Minister who has spent more time making Twitter videos than he has at the bargaining table. There were two videos out last night: one was shot in the board room at the bargaining table, and the other shot here in the Minister's office. You know, these are very real concerns. The stakes are very high. But unfortunately we see a Minister who appears to be content with working on putting up Twitter videos and playing chicken with our kids' education. The parents that I've heard from, the concerns that I've heard from people across this province are about the future of education in this province... they want a deal, found at the table, and that's what we're calling for. Enough of this -- get back to the table. Bargain in good faith and find a solution."