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Editorial: Positive sign in long-lasting labour dispute

Implementing work to rule was the biggest move yet for the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation.
teacher in classroom
An opinion piece on the ongoing dispute between the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation and the provincial government.

The labour dispute between the union representing Saskatchewan's teachers and the provincial government began prior to the start of the 2023-24 school year.

You might remember the billboard campaign that the provincial government launched last summer to create awareness of teacher salary demands. That was an early salvo in a protracted dispute that has spanned months, but clearly there was friction between the two sides to force the government to take that step. 

While most Saskatchewan people were thinking summer fun, the government had an education collective bargaining agreement on its mind.

In the fall, the STF's members voted in favour of job action. But it didn't really move on the threat until earlier this year. 

While this has never been a quiet labour dispute, the measures by teachers started to escalate early in 2024. There have been a few province-wide, one-day strikes, including one in January in the midst of an extreme cold warning. They also went on strike the same day the provincial budget was released.

We have seen rotating strikes in different school divisions and the withdrawal of noon-hour supervision. While these were an inconvenience, teachers had other steps in their arsenal that could have been much more significant.

They finally played one of those cards when they withdrew extracurricular activities in March, forcing Skills Canada provincials to be cancelled and the Hoopla provincial basketball tournament to be significantly altered.

Implementing work to rule was their biggest move yet. Not only does it mean extracurricular activities are off and they aren't providing noon hour supervision, but they show up shortly before the start of the school day and they leave shortly after the final bell of the day.

Outside of a longer strike, this is the boldest move the teachers can take.

People looking for hope received some good news Friday morning with the announcement that the STF and the government-trustee bargaining committee will held back to the negotiating table. The teachers will halt work-to-rule next week.

This is good news, but we've had reasons for optimism in the past that weren't fulfilled. 

The vast majority of teachers are dedicated, hard-working professionals who love their jobs and love working with students. You can be sure that work to rule is not something that teachers want. Most of them enjoy extracurricular activities, whether it be sports teams, clubs or anything else they would be involved with. They take pride in the students' success and progress, just as they are proud to see classroom achievements.

While we might think it's part of their job to coach a basketball team or plan a musical or run a club, it's not. They volunteer to do it because it's something they genuinely enjoy doing.

This is legitimately a sacrifice for them, although it's ultimately the students who suffer because they don't get to have this involvement. And while many clubs have been operating since the start of the school year and have completed a lot of their work, others would just be getting started in April.

Like any other labour dispute, the battle between the teachers and the government is going to have a lot of "he said, she said" moments. Each is going to provide their side, and it'll be rife with spin.

The teachers' supporters are going to be quick to side with them (and make no mistake, there are a lot of teacher backers). But there are also a lot of people who are on the government's side, whether it be because they genuinely support the government, or because they think teachers are asking for too much.

Regardless, this dispute dates back to before the start of the school year. Both sides have dug in, both are making claims about what they're offering, but they are also talking about what the other side isn't providing.

Labour negotiations between the teachers and the Saskatchewan Party government have been difficult in the past. In 2011, teachers went on strike for two days, the first instance of this happening in Saskatchewan in 78 years.

Four years ago, the teachers enacted work to rule measures in early March. Few remember the move, because days later the COVID-19 restrictions started to be enacted. The two sides quietly reached a resolution.

Now, after months of taking smaller actions, the teachers' federation took a much bigger step.

Perhaps the only surprise is it didn't happen earlier.